"King Kong" was probably the most eagerly awaited classic film ever to hit DVD. For years rumors were afloat that Warner was working on the restoration the film, which had been virtually destroyed through many years of us, abuse and neglect. I had heard that Warner was going to extraordinary lengths to restore the film but with existing elements being damaged and in poor shape, it was a challenge. And so the years dragged on until now, finally, we are able to not only relive the landmark movie "King Kong" on DVD, but also to experience it in a level of quality that no one would have thought possible.
Produced in 1933 the film was a movie landmark for a number of reasons, most importantly, though, for its amazing special effects. It rang in the era of visual effects which had not existed prior to the movie and Willis OBrien, the creator of the stop-motion photography for the film, managed to do the impossible for his time – to bring to life fantastic creatures. Using a wide variety of amazing technical and optical trickery he managed to create a character in Kong that did not only move but actually act and emote on the screen. Cinema has never been the same since.
The film tells the story of sensationalist filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) who will do anything to get a shot of a wild animal to wow his audiences. He hires Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a struggling actress, to join him on an expedition to visit and film some amazing things – what exactly, even he doesn't know yet.
They follow myths and end up on a mysterious island with a skull-shaped mountain where the native tribe makes sacrifices to someone they call Kong. They see the white woman, Ann, kidnap her and decide to sacrifice her to Kong.
Kong, of course, is a giant gorilla who falls in love with Ann. He carries her away to his lair, amazed by her radiant beauty. A crew man who has fallen in love with Ann, follows King Kong through the jungle and even manages to free her from the grasp of the gorilla. They flee with Kong in hot pursuit, but when he arrives at the beach, Kong is captured and shipped back to New York as an attraction for paying audiences. Heartbroken and angry, he is shackled in an auditorium, exposed to a thunderstorm of photography flashlights. And then he breaks free…
Even today, after more than 70 years, "King Kong" is a spectacle. The effects may be a bit dated but the film itself is a thrill ride in the vein of "Jurassic Park." Dinosaurs of all kind make appearances and fight with each other as humans struggle to survive their presence. I had not seen the film for a long time and I was honestly surprised how well it holds up.
A lot of it has certainly to do with Warner's marvelous restoration of the film. While a few shots are grainy as a result of optical effects and technical limitations at the time, as well as the fact that certain sequences of the film have been severely damaged and were almost beyond repair. "King Kong" looks absolutely amazing, unbelievable amazing, in fact, as details can be found in the picture that I bet no one has seen since the theatrical presentation of the film in the 30s. The definition of the transfer is remarkable making sure to bring back the entire glory of the production one frame at a time. Black levels are absolutely balanced and the film has a good amount of shades of gray to make for a solid presentation that never looks overly harsh despite the movie's considerable age.
The movie's mono sound track has also been restored and cleaned up. It is presented in a 2.0 channel Dolby Digital mono format on the release and is absolutely free of hiss or pops. The frequency response of the track has been improved giving it a better bottom end to make sure the track never sounds overly harsh. The dynamic range has also been improved and although slight distortion is still evident on occasion, the overall audio presentation of the film marvelously complements the restore picture.
As an extra the release features a commentary track with Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, and also includes bits from director Merian C. Cooper and actress Fay Wray. Harryhausen and Ralston both being special effects legends in their own right, are discussing in detail how the film was put together. Many times you will find yourself looking at a shot without giving it much thought – until Harryhausen and Ralston point out just how elaborate the shot is, how many different techniques had to be used to achieve the desired effect and how time consuming they all were. It simply boggles the mind, to be honest. Cooper and Wray then add more anecdotal passages to the track as they muse about the making of the film, which they do remember very vividly. Cooper's elements are, of course, excerpts from various interviews before his passing in 1973, while Wray's comments were recorded specifically for the DVD before her passing in 2004.
Also found on the first disc is a featurette about director Merian Cooper and his work through the years as well as a trailer gallery of his movies.
The second disc contains the real meat of the special features with the 7-part documentary "RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World" serving as the center piece. Each part of the documentary covers a different topic, starting with "The Origins Of King Kong," followed by "Willis OBrien and Creation." These two segments cover the early ideas of "King Kong" and the film "Creation," which was abandoned in favor of "King Kong," but allowed OBrien to reuse most of the work and models he had built for "Creation." It is a fascinating look at the studio system in the 30s and its workings. Then there are "Cameras roll on Kong, The Eighth Wonder," "A Milestone in Visual Effects," "Passion, Sound and Fury," and "King Kong's Legacy" all of them detailing out the history and production of the film in remarkable detail. Many filmmakers, ranging from Peter Jackson and Frank Darabont to Ray Harryhausen, Phil Tippet, Richard Taylor and countless others, have contributed their understanding of Kong in these featurettes. Fay Wray appears in various interview outtakes as she remembers the making of the film, as do other crew members. It plays like a "Who's Who" in special effects filmmaking with everyone discussing how Kong has influenced them and the industry and how revolutionary the movie was for its time.
One of the absolute highlights of the DVD is the "Spider Pit Scene." "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson, who is also currently working on a remake of "King Kong" and his guys at WETA Workshop have recreated a scene from the movie that was never shot but existed in the form of storyboards and other details. Using the exact same techniques that Willis OBrien used, recreating the models from the original blueprints, and then animating the sequence one frame at a time, they managed to give viewers a great look at how this scene could have looked like. In fact they matched the look of the original so closely that you will never be able to tell it was created 70 years after the original. Everything, down to the film grain is exactly as it is in the movie and if you wouldn't know better you would think this was shot by OBrien as part of the original movie.
The DVD also includes test footage that Willis OBrien created in preparation of his film "Creation." Ray Harryhausen goes over the material with the viewer and discusses some of the tricks and effects used there, and also explains how these sequences were later used as inspiration for "King Kong," detailing out where you can see these models appear in the film.
"King Kong" is an absolutely staggering release. It is still a wonderful film and Warner went to extraordinary lengths to restore the film for this release. The wait may have been long but it was definitely worth it. "King Kong" has never looked better and combined with the extras provided on this disc, this release is truly a celebration of a movie landmark. Do yourself a favor and get it today!