King Kong appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. While no one will confuse this for a movie shot in modern times, the image looked remarkable given its age.
Though the picture wasn’t razor sharp, I thought softness was essentially a non-factor. Any scenes that lacked great definition seemed to result from the source photography. In particular, the film exhibited prominent grain, and that could make things tentative at times.
That said, I felt pleased with the movie’s definition. Even in 1933, I’m sure it suffered from the same instances of softness that occurred here, and the majority of the film looked quite distinctive. At times, the detail was surprisingly strong for something so old. I noticed plenty of small elements in the image and thought it was consistently good and often borderline excellent.
I noticed virtually no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, and edge enhancement was absent. Blacks looked tight and deep, and contrast seemed solid. A few shadows were slightly thick, but those resulted from the photography; most of those shots were clear and well-defined.
With any movie from the early 30s, source flaws become a major concern. Not so in the case of Kong, which looked almost totally clean. Yes, grain was heavy, but that was appropriate; the grain came from the original photography and never turned into a real distraction. Actual print defects remained absent; other than a vaguely blotchy look to some shots that I would assume resulted from the aging of the elements, this was a clean flick.
I debated what grade to give to Kong, as I usually reserve “A”-level consideration for movies that look like they could’ve been shot recently. Kong doesn’t qualify for that regard, as it clearly showed issues that related to its age.
Nonetheless, I simply couldn’t ignore what a remarkable presentation the Blu-ray offered. I’ve seen enough movies from the 30s to know that they usually provide a mix of flaws, whereas Kong boasted a consistently pleasing image. Though the Blu-ray showed its age, it did so in a surprisingly minor way. This was an excellent transfer of an ancient film, so I thought it deserved an “A” grade.
In addition, King Kong presented a more-than-adequate DTS-HD MA 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 77-year-old movie, this was a perfectly solid soundtrack.
How did the picture and audio of the Blu-ray compare to those of the 2005 DVD? The soundtracks were a wash, as there’s only so much that can be done with 77-year-old material.
On the other hand, the Blu-ray looked significantly better than its predecessor. I felt pretty pleased with the 2005 DVD, but the Blu-ray eliminated its handful of source flaws and was tighter and better defined. The Blu-ray provides a noticeable step up in quality.
Almost all of the DVD’s extras appear here as well. These start 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 disc’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.
We follow 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.
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.
Next 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.
In addition, the disc includes a Trailer for Kong. In the only change from the 2005 DVD, it drops promos for 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.
The Blu-ray adds a hardcover book. This comes as part of the package; open up the disc’s casing and the book appears on the left half. It features a mix of components. We get a very good production essay from Rudy Behlmer as well as production photos and advertising materials. Behlmer’s text offers the best aspect of the book, though the images are nice as well. All of the components help turn this into a winning bonus.
Still a wild ride after nearly 80 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 Blu-ray presents great picture and good 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, and this Blu-ray stands as a nice improvement over the 2005 DVD. It’s definitely worth a double-dip, as I can’t imagine Kong could ever look much better than it does here.
To rate this film, visit the Special Edition review of KING KONG