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Universal Studios Home Video presents
King Kong HD-DVD (2005)

"In a few months, his name will be up in lights on Broadway: Kong! The Eighth Wonder of the World!"
- Carl Denham (Jack Black)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: February 16, 2007

Stars: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody
Other Stars: Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Jamie Bell, Evan Parke, Lobo Chan, Kyle Chandler, Andy Serkis
Director: Peter Jackson

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for frightening adventure violence, some disturbing images
Run Time: 03h:07m:01s
Release Date: November 14, 2006
UPC: 025193002921
Genre: fantasy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Peter Jackson was profoundly affected at a young age by the original film of King Kong (1933) and had wanted to film his own version for decades. He got fairly well along in the process with Universal in the 1990s when the plug was pulled on the project. But after the megasuccess of Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, there was little question but that Universal would welcome him back and essentially give him carte blanche to make his film. The result probably would have benefited from a little more restraint, but it's hard to deny the emotional impact of the picture as it stands.

The essential outlines of the story follow the original closely, with entrepreneurial director Carl Denham (this time played by Jack Black) a step ahead of his creditors as he tries to make an amazing adventure film in 1933, with the key being an aged, scrawled map. Out-of-work actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is reluctant to take part in the picture until she learns the script is by respected writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). A tramp steamer carrying this threesome heads for Skull Island, the destination marked on the map. But they don't understand what it is they're liable to find there: Kong, a 25-foot ape, who is used to receiving human sacrifices. But blonde Miss Darrow appeals to Kong on a deeper level than just a snack, which proves to be his undoing.

Although everything here is on a much bigger scale, the most notable difference from the 1933 version is the emotional center of the relationship between Ann and Kong. Where Fay Wray pretty much just spent her time screaming at King Kong, Watts' version of Ann Darrow is entirely different. At first terrified, she quickly grows to both respect and in a way love the giant gorilla. This gives the otherwise bloated spectacle a heart that it wears on its sleeve. Several of these sequences are profoundly affecting, such as the one in which Kong is captured, or the quiet moment of joy in Central Park. Of course, there's the finale atop the Empire State Building, and Jackson plays it for everything it's worth. But none of it would work without Watts, who does an amazing job of emotionally connecting to a giant ape that isn't there at all. When combined with the extraordinary motion capture work of Andy Serkis as Kong, the result is an astonishing piece of work that makes this character-driven as well as effects-driven.

The downside, however, is that Jackson goes a bit overboard during the lengthy Skull Island sequence. There's dinosaur after dinosaur, monster after monster, with the centerpiece being a seemingly endless brontosaurus stampede. It just doesn't stop, going from one set of monstrosities and abominations to another to the point of monotony. Any one of these bits would be splendid, but all together they're just exhausting. Another 10 minutes trimmed out of this sequence would have helped immeasurably. (I can't believe I just complained that a movie has too many dinosaurs and monsters in it.)

Jackson properly kept the story set in its original 1933 setting; if it were brought to the present the tale would not be nearly as evocative and taking down Kong would just be too simple. But in its 1930s setting, Kong is a force of nature, practically unstoppable despite everything the army can throw at him. At the same time, the picture makes plenty of knowing nods to the Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Shoedsack original, such as a remark by Denham that Fay Wray is unavailable because she's making a film for Delgado at RKO. Other less apparent connections are also present, such as the inclusion of Max Steiner's classic score in several sequences. But few musical moments are quite as affecting as the heartbreaking rendition of Bye, Bye Blackbird by Peggy Lee, during a melancholy moment after the return to New York.

There were some complaints about the first act of the story taking too long to get to Skull Island, but I don't agree with them. While the original audience for King Kong knew about the Depression setting, it takes some time for Jackson to properly set the stage and put you into the miserable circumstances of the impoverished of 1933 New York. The realization of this world is truly first-rate, with an incredible amount of detail bringing forward the wretched living conditions. By contrast, the second New York bookend focuses on the carefree gaiety of the upper crust, dressed to the nines on Broadway. It's during that last act that some of the best and most beautiful moments of the film occur. The distinctive features of Adrien Brody are put to good use when Kong, just escaped from the theater where he's being exhibited, suddenly spots Driscoll, and recognizes him as the man that took Ann away from him. The interaction between them is splendid, as is the chaos that Kong wreaks in response.

The Skull Island sequence does make a terrific contrast to cosmopolitan New York. Probably the most disturbing segment is that featuring the truly terrifying natives of the island, who often seem as if they're undead. The beautiful scenery of New Zealand once again stands in for a fantasy world, and does so just as memorably as it did in Jackson's Tolkien saga. The effects work is excellent throughout, with Kong almost always being completely convincing. Only the long shots of Ann in Kong's paw are less than authentic. The version presented on the HD DVD is the original theatrical cut, not the extended version.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The HD transfer of King Kong is nothing short of stellar. From the very beginning, there's exceptional texture and detail. Watts looks incredibly radiant, while the texture of her coat in the New York sequences springs to vivid life. The shipboard scenes are suffused with a golden warmth and immediacy that's quite romantic. By contrast, the blacks of the bowels of the ship are extremely deep and rich. The color during the sacrifice scene is nothing short of stunning as the fire flows over the rocks. Kong himself is beautifully detailed, with every hair gorgeously delineated. No macroblocking, artifacting or edge enhancement was observed at all. The entire film has a 3-D quality that makes it one of the best HD transfers seen yet, resulting in a first-rate home theater experience.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, French, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 DD+ tracks have all of the range and depth of the standard version (which was limited to an English track only), with the roars and the sweep of the score even more effective here. The bass rumble of the ship scraping upon the rocks and the dinosaur stampede will give your subwoofer a solid workout. Directionality is quite good, such as the feeling of being surrounded by the vermin and insects of Skull Island, with the sound of the biplanes in the finale again being a highlight.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 50 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Packaging: Elite
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. U-Control
Extras Review: The substantial extras from the standard release are not repeated here. Instead, the sole extra is the first serious implementation of Universal's U-Control function. This allows access to picture-in-picture comments and behind the scenese footage as well as production art, though the latter is often so small as to be illegible. The PIP function is rather spotty, with long sections of the film not having any extra content. Most of this material appears familiar, and seems to be drawn from the Production Diaries set as well as some of the Post-Production Diaries found on the standard DVD. The presentation is a little clumsy, since the viewer has to activate each instance of the PIP and the art galleries independently; you can't just let it run like a commentary track. Between the awkward interface and the rather limited use made of the function, it's hard to be too impressed. In order for the U-Control to function, first generation HD DVD players must be upgraded to firmware 2.0.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Despite overkill in the middle, this is certainly a worthwhile remake that re-envisions its tale not as a horror but as a love story. In that, it exceeds admirably with Watts turning in a superb performance. The transfer is impeccable, and marks one of the great triumphs of the early days of the HD DVD format.


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