King Kong appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite some moderate flaws, the movie generally looked pretty good.
Actually, given the age of the material and its complexity, this was a nice presentation. The film featured many complicated effects shots, and those created quite a few possible concerns. Despite those issues, the film usually remained attractive and well-rendered.
Sharpness mostly came across well. A few shots seemed slightly ill-defined, and not always for obvious reasons. I understood a loss of resolution in some of the effects shots, but some without any visual complications also looked iffy. Nonetheless, the majority of the flick appeared nicely distinctive and detailed. I noticed virtually no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, and edge enhancement was minimal.
Blacks looked tight and deep, and contrast seemed solid. Print flaws were quite minimal for a movie of this one’s vintage. The biggest distraction came from grain, which could become moderately heavy. Otherwise, source issues stayed minor. Some shots exhibited light spots, and a few showed thin lines or small hairs. That was about it, however. Most movies made in the early Thirties look considerably dirtier, so this one’s restoration impressed. A few too many issues occurred for me to give Kong a grade above a “B”, but I still felt pleased with the transfer.
In addition, King Kong presented a more-than-adequate monaural soundtrack. Nothing about the audio excelled, but it seemed solid for its age. Speech demonstrated pretty positive clarity and appeared reasonably natural. Some lines were slightly edgy, but the dialogue didn’t seem too thin and shrill. Effects were acceptably clean and accurate; they didn’t demonstrate much range, but they lacked much distortion and were fairly concise. Music seemed similarly restricted but sounded fine for its age. The score was reasonably full and replicated the source material acceptably. Only a little light background noise cropped up during the movie. For a 72-year-old movie, this was a perfectly solid soundtrack.
When we head to the set’s extras, we start on DVD One with an audio commentary. This presents remarks from visual effects veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, actor Fay Wray, and producer/director Merian C. Cooper. Harryhausen and Ralston sit together for a running, screen-specific chat; notes from Cooper and Wray emanate from archival materials and are interspersed throughout the flick.
On paper, it sounds like a good idea to pair Harryhausen and Ralston, but the actual results are less interesting. Much of the time they simply gush about how much they like the movie. They reflect on some of its participants and the techniques used to make the flick, but most of the time they just talk about how great Kong is.
The archival remarks prove more illuminating. Cooper is especially interesting as he discusses his career and aspects of the Kong production. He doesn’t pop up as often as I’d like, but when he appears, he gives us fun glimpses of the film. Wray plays only a minor role, as she shows up just twice. Both occasions are brief and forgettable. I’m not sure why the DVD’s producers even bothered to include Wray since she says so little.
All of this adds up to a decidedly disappointing commentary. The main participants usually do little more than act like fanboys as they praise the movie; they offer surprisingly little insight. Cooper’s notes are more valuable but too infrequent, while Wray’s are completely useless. A classic like Kong deserves a better commentary than this dud.
In addition, DVD One includes a Merian C. Cooper Trailer Gallery. It features promos for King Kong, 1933’s Son of Kong, 1933’s Flying Down to Rio, 1948’s Fort Apache, 1948’s 3 Godfathers, 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and 1956’s The Searchers.
Moving to Disc Two, we open with a documentary entitled “I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper. This 56-minute and 55-second program offers a collection of movie clips, archival materials, and interviews. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, we get taped comments from Cooper himself and his partner Ernest “Monty” Shoedsack. We also hear from Wray, Harryhausen, actors James Karen, Harry Carey Jr. and Terry Moore, film historians Rudy Behlmer and Paul M. Jensen, Cinerama Adventure writer/director David Strohmaier, Merian C. Cooper Collection curator James D’Arc, Cooper’s godson Ted Curtis Jr., biographer Mark Cotta Vaz, writer Ray Bradbury, film collector Bob Burns, visual effects supervisor Craig Barron, Disney animation artist James Mansfield, David O. Selznick’s son Daniel, and Flying Tiger ace Brigadier General David “Tex” Hill.
As implied by the title, “Exploits” looks at the life of the Kong producer/director. We learn about his early years and military exploits, subsequent adventures and his move into movies, his “nature” flicks and cinematic innovations, his work in aviation, making Kong and film work after that, personal matters, activities during World War II, working with John Ford, creating Mighty Joe Young, and his involvement in Cinerama.
A thoroughly terrific program, “Exploits” digs into Cooper’s life with gusto. It provides a nice overview of the important topics but doesn’t skimp on details. I especially like the glimpses of how Cooper’s real-life adventures and relationships were paralleled in Kong. This documentary offers a rich and informative take on its subject.
Next comes another documentary. RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World goes for a whopping two hours, 38 minutes and 45 seconds. It offers notes from Behlmer, Burns, Vaz, Barron, Harryhausen, D’Arc, Wray, Cooper’s friend Rich Correll, Spawn of Skull Island author Doug Turner, stop motion animators the Chiodo Brothers, film historian/author Ron Magid, director of VFX photography Alex Funke, director/visual effects supervisor Randy Cook, Weta Workshop creative director Richard Taylor, special makeup effects artist Rick Baker, director/visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett, stop motion animation producer Michael Pellerin, stop motion animator Graham Binding, matte painter Michael Pangrazio, sound designer/editor Ben Burtt, composer/music historian John Morgan, sound effects artist Murray Spivack, film music historian Jon Burlingame, Weta puppet design and fabrication Shaun Bolton, Weta sculptor Bill Hunt, sound effects editor David Whitehead, sound designer Mike Hopkins, music editor Nigel Scott, “Ain’t It Cool News” webmaster Harry Knowles, and filmmakers John Landis, Peter Jackson, Frank Darabont and Joe Dante.
“RKO” starts with a quick look at Cooper’s life and experiences that influenced Kong as well as notes about collaborator Ernest “Monty” Schoedsack. We see their adventures and the movies they made prior to Kong. Next we get notes about the life of visual effects artist Willis O’Brien and his work including the abandoned Creation. Using artwork and narration, “RKO” presents a dramatization of what Creation might have been if it were completed.
From there, O’Brien’s path intersects with Cooper’s and we head toward Kong. The show covers the creation of a test reel as well as the dual production schedule along with The Most Dangerous Game. Next we learn about the development of the script, casting, locations and sets, shooting the film, and editing. A substantial look at the visual effects follows this; it includes a recreation of the animation techniques, an analysis of the Kong puppet, notes about matte painting, and photographic techniques.
After that the show digs into sound effects, score, and their integration. As the program nears its close, we learn about the 1938 Production Code cuts, deleted scenes and a modern recreation of the lost spider sequence. Finally, “RKO” looks at the movie’s release, its success, and its aftereffects on the business and those involved.
If forced to complain about “RKO”, I’d gripe about the lack of information about the shoot itself. The program zips through formal production rather quickly and concentrates heavily on the technical elements. I’d have liked a little more information about the actors and that side of things.
However, I need to remember that this movie was made more than 70 years ago, so it’s not like the documentary’s producers have easy access to those involved. Besides, its main legacy comes from its technical importance, and "RKO” delves into those issues with terrific detail. We get a wealth of detail about the visual elements and also learn quite a lot about the other topics. This adds up to a vivid and informative piece that nicely delineates most things Kong.
Two additional components finish off Disc Two. The Lost Spider Pit Sequence runs five minutes and 57 seconds. This presents the recreation of this scene created by Peter Jackson and his crew. If you watched the documentary, you already saw this. Still, it’s nice to have in its own little section here.
Finally, we get the Original Creation Test Footage with Ray Harryhausen Commentary. In this four-minute and 55-second piece, we see clips initially created for an abandoned flick called Creation. Some of this appears in the documentary, but I like that we can see more of Willis O’Brien’s seminal work. Harryhausen gives us some background about the shots along with other notes about O’Brien and his material. Harryhausen adds good insight into these snippets.
Still a wild ride after more than 70 years, King Kong holds up surprisingly well. Inevitably, it shows its age in some ways, but these don’t alleviate its excitement and drama. The DVD presents good picture and audio for a movie of this one’s vintage. As for the extras, the audio commentary is a serious disappointment, but the other components more than make up for its deficits. Kong belongs in the collection of every movie fan.
Pursestrings note: you can buy King Kong in three different ways. This review covers the “standard” two-disc special edition that retails for about $27. There’s also a “Collector’s Edition” that lists for about $40. It includes the same 2-DVD set along with a collectible tin and some paper materials as well. Finally, you can get “The King Kong Collection”, a four-DVD set that features this same 2-disc Kong along with Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young. It retails for around $40, which makes it a steal if you’re interested in the other two movies – or just one of them. Those sell for $20 on their own, whereas this set gives you both of them for a mere extra $14. That sounds like a very good deal to me, so the “Collection” is probably the most appealing of the three renditions of Kong.