Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Paramount, widescreen 1.85:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, French Digital Mono, subtitles: English, single side-dual layer, 28 chapters, theatrical trailer, rated PG, 134 min., $29.99, street date 7/27/99.
Academy Awards: Winner of Special Achievement Awards-Visual Effects. Nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Sound, 1977.
Directed by John Guillermin. Starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange, John Randolph, Rene Auberjonois, Julius Harris.
The Big Apple is again besieged by the monstrous King Kong. Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange star in this ambitious remake of the 1933 original, which adds a great deal of camp and good fun to the story. Again, the gargantuan ape battles attacking aircraft high above the streets of New York, this time plunging from the top of the World Trade Center to his death amidst thousands of horrified onlookers. King Kong won an Oscar for special effects, and the horror and the thrills are brought anew to another generation in this classic and classy production.
If you're a regular reader of the DVD MovieGuide - and if not, what's wrong with you?! - you may have noted a slight nostalgic bent in some of my recent reviews. I've decided to relive my movie childhood and revisit some of those films that meant a lot to me as a kid. In one case (The Towering Inferno), this trip down memory lane was a success, but in another (Earthquake) it was a total disaster.
Undeterred, I soldiered on and decided to try the remake of King Kong from 1976. Thinking back to that period makes me realize that I probably shouldn't criticize Pokemon-obsessed kids because I was just the same way. I went ape-nuts over KK and it ultimately didn't even matter if the movie was any good; I was into all the merchandise in a heavy way! I may still have my KK lunchbox somewhere, and I know I possessed many KK spiral notebooks. I even won first prize at a Halloween costume contest that year when I went as the Empire State Building complete with stuffed gorilla on top. (Yeah, I know that's a reference to the original film, but how was I supposed to go as the Twin Towers? Cloning wasn't a reality back then.)
Truthfully, it's these memories of all the merchandise that stuck with me. I guess I liked the movie itself, but I'm not really sure. Time to find out how I feel 24 years later!
It turns out there's a very good reason why I don't remember much about KK - it's a pretty forgettable movie. That's not to say that it's a bad picture, because it's not; however, that's also not to say that it's a good film either, because it can't meet those criteria. King Kong is yet another of the unwashed majority of movies that are watchable and mildly entertaining but not actually very compelling or memorable. If it wasn't for my embrace of the merchandise, it's unlikely I'd have any memory of KK at all.
Although I don't think it was supposed to be, KK is a pretty campy film. Charles Grodin heavily emotes in his scenery-chewing performance, and Jessica Lange seems to base her work on a drag queen's idea of Marilyn Monroe; who woulda thunk based on this movie - her motion picture debut - that Lange would later receive six Oscar nominations and actually take home two awards?
The action scenes are mildly interesting, though the atrocious special effects negatively affected my enjoyment. Since I was so interested in the film, I remember reading "making of" accounts about KK back in 1976; these all went into detail about how great the effects would be and how modern technology would give us a much more realistic Kong than had been available back in 1933.
The biggest change seems to be that our Kong was mainly a guy in a suit, whereas the old Kong was a stop-motion puppet. We also get to see many very poor blue screen and rear projection shots. Granted, I'm sure these looked better to our less-sophisticated eyes back in the Seventies, but it's hard to believe they looked much better.
King Kong isn't a complete loss, but it has very little going for it. I didn't hate it, but I mainly just tolerated it. That's not what you'd call a strong recommendation.
King Kong appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall it adds up to an average picture, but that's because the movie offers a very broad range of perceptual highs and lows.
Sharpness generally seems adequate, though a hazy softness creeps into many scenes. Nevertheless, many shots appear quite clear and accurate. Moiré effects become a bit of a problem due to anamorphic downconversion artifacts; we see a fair number of jagged edges, particularly in scenes that show much camera movement. The print used is in pretty good shape, though it demonstrates a relatively high amount of speckling; I also discerned some scratches, hairs and spots at times, but these weren't as prevalent as the speckles.
Speaking of print flaws, Jeff Bridges movies must be cursed, because this is the second time in two days I've seen a Bridges DVD with a weird fault. The Last Picture Show had a scene with some bizarre image-shifting, and King Kong offers one frame that appears to have lost about one-fourth of its image! This happens about 125 minutes into the film. You may think you won't notice a problem with one frame, but it's quite easily evident; I had a "what the hell was that?!" reaction and used freeze-frame to examine it more closely.
Colors are fairly subdued in this film with a pretty flat palette, but they seemed acceptable, if occasionally a bit oversaturated; one scene that used heavy red light easily looks the worst in this regard. Black levels are good though too strong; as a result, shadow detail suffers. This was actually my biggest problem with the image: I had far too much trouble seeing what was happening for a lot of the film. Ultimately, King Kong offers a watchable image, but not one that's consistently good.
That's still a step up on the disaster that is the movie's Dolby Digital 5.1 track. If there's one thing I find most important in a soundtrack, it's that it be clear and lack distortion. That's the most basic requirement one can muster, and if the audio doesn't live up to it, all the flashy surround effects in the world won't correct the problem.
King Kong indeed offers a pretty impressive soundstage for a movie from the mid-Seventies. The surrounds provide some good reinforcement of the information from the front; I noted no split surround usage, but the general ambience they give seems beneficial. The stereo effects from the front are inconsistent but often adequately separated. The imaging is strange at times; some dialogue comes from the correct left or right channel (or a spot midpoint between the center and the side), but occasionally a sound that should be closer to the center goes farther to the side than something else. It's hard to explain, but the localization of sound sometimes seems slightly incorrect. John Barry's score receives effective usage as well and balances nicely between the front channels, with some support from the rears as well. While it's got some peculiarities, I have to give the track high marks for effort, since most films of its era don't attempt such ambitious audio.
Unfortunately, this ambition is about all the soundtrack has going for it, because the quality is usually pretty atrocious. I can't recall the last time I heard audio as distorted as King Kong, especially when one considers the relative youth of the project; I'd be disappointed to hear a track from the Thirties sound this bad. The sound is not always harsh and crackly, but it happens more often than not. Quieter scenes lack distortion, though even they don't sound very good; effects and dialogue remain consistently flat and dull.
Once the distortion appears, forget about enjoying the movie. Granted, that would have been difficult under any circumstances, but this soundtrack fails so frequently that it really made it hard for me to watch the film. It's not as prevalent through the first half or so of King Kong, but once the action heats up to any degree, the audio sounds grossly distorted and unlistenable. Almost the entire New York portion of the film appears intensely flawed in this manner.
All of this is a shame, because with more clarity, this could have been a good soundtrack. Not only does it offer a relatively impressive soundfield, but it also features some surprisingly deep bass at times; it's not got a great low end, but there's still more "thump" to Kong's footsteps and the music than I expected. Speaking of the score, that's the only part of the audio that doesn't completely flop. Indeed, it's usually a highlight of the mix; it sounds somewhat thin on top but remains clear and detailed for the most part. The distortion affects it at times - most pointedly toward the end of the film - but doesn't affect it to nearly the degree it mars the dialogue and effects.
If I based my rating of King Kong's soundtrack solely on quality, it'd get a well-deserved "F" - that's how much distortion and crackling I heard. Only the relative depth of the soundfield and some decent-sounding music brought it up to a "D+." This mix is an absolute mess.
As is typical for Paramount DVDs, King Kongboasts almost no supplements. We see its absurdly positive trailer - one that declares KK to be the most stunning movie of all time. Considering that it wasn't even the best movie entitled King Kong, that's an ever-so-slight stretch.
While the 1976 remake of King Kong is a dopey but largely watchable film, Paramount's issue of it on DVD is not worth your time. Inconsistent but generally average picture, extremely weak audio, and virtually no extras make it a DVD to avoid.