the review site with a difference since 1999
Reviews Interviews Articles Apps About

Docurama presents

King Corn (2007)

"If you were given the power to design an ideal place to grow the corn crop, with all of its requirements and all of its characteristics, you would design something that looked quite a bit like Iowa."- Ricardo Salvador, agronomist, Iowa State University

Stars: Ian Cheney, Curtis Ellis
Director: Aaron Woolf

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language)
Run Time: 01h:30m:10s
Release Date: 2008-04-29
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+B+B+ B+


DVD Review

I always thought corn was one of the good guys. In elementary school, I learned that it was corn that saved the Pilgrims, with an assist from the Native Americans who taught them to plant it. It's cheap, it's got lots of fiber, and it tastes great with butter. Little did I know, the vegetable, as American as the nation's heartland, is evil. Or that's the impression you get watching King Corn, a documentary that actually manages to make agriculture interesting, and make you think twice about the foods you put in your body every day.

Of course, it's not the corn that's evil, but the way in which the starchy kernels have infiltrated our lives, with vast social, political, and physical ramifications, facts that two city boys discover when they embark on an experiment to learn how corn is farmed and the various forms it takes on the way to your table. After discovering, thanks to a helpful geneticist, that some 50-percent of their hair is made of corn that they've eaten, Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, best friends who met at an east coast university, secure a single acre of farmland in a small town in Iowa and, with the help of a few friendly farmers, start growing their meager harvest.

The film aims for the personable, sardonic style of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock (whose kindred Super-Size Me is an obvious influence), charting Cheney and Ellis' progress as they learn to farm their own acre of corn and follow it through the growing season. While it provides the structure—the months tick by with onscreen titles—its a cutesy angle that gets a little tiresome, mostly because you can feel them stretching to find drama in the mundane process. It's enlightening, for example, when they learn how they will lose money farming unless corn subsidies are taken into account (bringing their net profit up to $28 each), but the two make too much of the fact that both their grandfathers came from the same small Iowa town, with the requisite explorations of family history.

Things get more interesting when the two begin to consider what will happen to the corn once it has been picked, and start considering questions far vaster in scope, like why our government subsidizes corn more than any other crop, enough so that farmers grow it even though it's impossible to make a profit without a federal handout. Why, for example, is much of the corn grown in Iowa inedible, genetically modified for a high yield but little nutritional value? The answer, of course, is corn syrup, a substance that is painted as a true villain in King Corn. Cheney and Ellis travel to the grocery store, where they have trouble finding processed foods that don't contain one corn by-product or another—even beef. Thanks to generations of corn-fed cows, a nutritionist points out, meat is filled with the stuff.

So what's so bad about corn? Well, we learn, that since corn syrup is cheaper than sugar, it is used in a lot of high-calorie junk and fast foods. This allows those foods to be produced and purchased cheaply, leading to a nation of children too fat to get off the couch. Since 1970, our consumption of high fructose corn syrup has increased dramatically, as have instances of Type II diabetes. Does that mean corn syrup has more detrimental health effects than cane sugar? It's a question King Corn doesn't ask, but what it does reveal—the way government has encouraged the overproduction of corn good for nothing but making highly-profitable sweetener and feed for livestock—raises interesting points about how commerce and public policy can shape our lives in ways we never even realize.

King Corn wants to make you angry—witness a segment that reveals how unnatural corn-based diets ravage the intestines of cattle, forcing farmers to pump them full of antibiotics (not to mention the fact that the feed results in meat with three times as much saturated fat)—and sometimes you can feel the agenda getting in the way of the message a little bit, but it's very entertaining, particular when Cheney and Ellis decide to have some fun with the subject, driving a combine and making high fructose corn syrup at home. Their summary of the finished product? "It tastes sweet."

Former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who promoted the modern system of corn subsidies in the 1970s, pointed out that the 1973 farm bill would allow Americans to spend less money on food than any generation is history. Yes, King Corn argues, but at what cost, if it means a nation killing itself with soda and fast food? "We subsidize the happy meals," one nutritionist points out, "but not the healthy ones."

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Like many documentaries, King Corn mixes newly shot and archival footage and experiments with a number of shooting styles. The effect translates well to DVD, with a clear picture free of obvious noise, color smearing, and digital artifacts.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 DD surround mix is surprisingly robust for a documentary, primarily in its presentation of music, with fills out the front soundstage with good support from the rear channels. The surrounds are also active providing occasional atmosphere (wind whipping across the plains and the like). Speech is always clear.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+ 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: custom cardboard cover with sl
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Lost Basement Lectures
  2. Music video
Extras Review: If your film is a documentary of a liberal bent, it's all the rage these days to provide biodegradable packaging (see The 11th Hour, An Inconvenient Truth). King Corn comes in a commendably recycled, if rather flimsy, cardboard case (even the hub is made of the stuff).

The extras have been produced with as much care, starting with four deleted scenes (17m:41s). Chicago follows Cheney and Ellis to the Board of Trade, where they ask a trader if he can sell their acre of corn for them—it's just out back, in their truck. Along the way, they hand out some free samples to a bewildered CTA bus driver, no doubt making him even later on his route. Washington, D.C. features the two talking corn subsidies with an Iowa senator and watching some old corn promotion films from the National Archive (jimmy Durante providing the corny jokes). In the brief Boston they dress up in period garb to toss some corn into the Boston Harbor. I don't get it either. Finally, in Iowa they take a trip back to the corn belt to ask farmers what they thought of the film. The farmers make some good points.

The Lost Basement Lectures (10m:40s) are eight goofy "documentary" segments explaining the history of corn. I don't know if they ever meant for these to be in the film; they are amusing enough but a bit over the top. On the promotional side, there's a music video and a trailer, and the brief filmmaker bios also house a small gallery of stills.

Extras Grade: B+

Final Comments

An engrossing, revealing look at the economics and politics that help shape the food we put into our bodies every day, King Corn is a surprisingly sharp entry in the genre of socially conscious documentaries popularized by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. Yes, it's one-sided, no, it doesn't delve into all the issues, but it raises questions that you've probably never thought about. Like, why is 50-percent of your hair made of corn?

Joel Cunningham 2008-06-09