Impossibly beating all odds, destroying every bad memory about the 1976 remake, and setting a new standard for creature features, King Kong is a remarkable film. It's intense, brutal, and draining on every emotion. You're actually tired after watching it. Peter Jackson's remake is a $207 million gift for every Kong fan in the world, and except for a few ugly spots, it's hard to imagine a better way to resurrect one of cinema's all time greats.
Things move fast for a movie clocking in at over 180 minutes. There are numerous extended sequences on the boat as Carl Denham (Jack Black) takes a crew to Skull Island for his final shot at fame. The benefit to this is character development, establishing real relationships that play a huge role when the title character finally runs onto the screen. Time goes by quickly, and the countless little nods to the original (including an early RKO/Merian C. Cooper reference) will bring a smile to anyone who appreciates the 1933 version.
Jackson's direction follows a straight path that doesn't stray far in pacing. Once the initial set up is taken care of, there's hardly a scene in the movie that doesn't feature Kong or one of his island co-inhabitants, just like the '33 Kong. If you felt the opening exposition was dull, you'll forget that those dialogue scenes were even included once the Oscar-winning special effects from WETA take over.
It's rather pointless to remake a film without adding something to make it stand out. Peter Jackson leaves his mark on the King Kong legacy. There's a scene not long after Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts in a perfectly believable performance) is kidnapped in which she finally realizes Kong is not going to harm her. She begins performing her Vaudeville act, and the giant ape is mesmerized. He laughs, plays, and bounces around like a child.
There are multiple scenes like this, and the focus is clearly on Ann and Kong for the entire movie. Turning the large ape into a believable creature (as opposed to a typical rampaging beast) works on countless levels, and the film's finale is easily the best of the three takes on this story. The emotional pull is unbearable as the agonizing sequence continues to bombard the viewer with one cringe inducing moment to the next. There's a reason Kong is made out to be the victim, and the ending proves why. It's everything the original wanted to be.
Jack Black is a sore spot here, playing a completely different character than Robert Armstrong did back on 1933. Instead of being overly zealous and ambitious, his character has a reason for his actions: insanity. His slow descent into madness doesn't really work, mostly because Black is out of his element and his unnatural style doesn't mesh with the rest of the cast.
Some of the action is also over the top. The spider pit sequence pays homage to a forever lost sequence from the original, and the action here (along with the rather pitiful rescue) stretches things. The stampede does the same thing, with far too many close calls that are far too contrived and convenient. The same thing can be said for the Skull Island natives, shot with a rather aggravating slow motion and blur effect. It takes away from the horror of the sequence.
When Kong is on though, it's one unforgettable moment that's followed up with another. The sign this is a sure classic comes from the dramatic sequences. The brutal three-way T-Rex fight has plenty of merit going for it, yet when you leave the theater, it's the touching scenes between Ann and Kong that stick out. The playful romp in Central Park, the sunset on a ledge, or the final shot of the beast staring at her as his life slips away are the shots we pay to see.
What this edition becomes is a three-hour dream sequence for fans. Those who love King Kong could barely imagine a retelling of the story like this, and yet here it is on film, with all of those dreams intact. The decision to take Kong and give him emotion without turning him into something too human was the best move Jackson could have made. This is a masterpiece of film, easily on par with the original. (***** out of *****)
Kong arrives on DVD in an immaculate DVD transfer. Somehow avoiding the usual plagues of compression, aliasing (which is especially impressive given the amount of detail on Kong and the island), and edge enhancement, this is as beautiful as all the special effects. There are a few brief scenes where the contrast goes a little overboard, but in the midst of a three hour movie, it's around 2% of the film. This is one of the greatest DVD transfers since the inception of the format. (*****)
Likewise, the audio packs a whallop, at times brining bass to dangerous levels. Be careful with this. It's overwhelming at times, adding to the impact and sheer brutality of the fight sequences. Audio is likewise phenomenal elsewhere, with every speaker finding work on a regular basis. You've never heard Kong meet his cruel fate until you've heard it in 5.1. It's a shame it didn't get the Lord of the Rings DTS 6.1 treatment, though they had to leave something for extended cut. (*****)
There are two versions of Kong on DVD, three if you consider the pan & scan version a separate release. This is the two disc special edition. The single disc only offers a 30-second look at the making of the Touareg commercial. It's also on disc one of the special edition and is nothing more than an extended two-minute ad.
Disc two offers the final pieces of the Peter Jackson Production Diaries. These have been available for months on the Kongiskong.net website. While the diaries are a superb idea, it's shoddy marketing to release the original set of diaries separately. In other words, even after spending $20 on this set, you need to spend another $20 (if not more) to get the rest of the features.
Skull Island: A Natural History is a fun 20-minute piece. Set up like a National Geographic documentary, it follows the discovery and eventual demise of Skull Island as if it actually existed. This is by far the most enjoyable exclusive feature on this set.
Kong's New York is close to a half hour, offering insight into what the city was like when Kong made his initial visit in 1933. The construction of the Empire State Building is covered, along with prohibition and the depression. Its link to the film is loose, though appropriate. (***)
There's an obvious lack of a commentary track here, and Jackson has been quoted he'll do one if Universal agrees to release an extended DVD cut. The production diaries offer numerous scenes that didn't make it, including the swamp sequence, which was a cornerstone of the original. Knowing Jackson, we'll get that edition, so if you're only a loose fan of the film, director, or the 1933 classic, a rental may suit your needs better.