Tuesday, February 20, 2007

KING KONG: Blu-ray (RKO 1933) Warner Home Video

King Kong (1933) is not a horror movie. He was also not a man in an ape suit, though early inner office memos from directors/producers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack seem to suggest the possibility. What King Kong was, is, and arguably remains, is one of the most technically proficient forays into sci-fi melodrama ever put on the big screen. Today, the film may seen quaint from a purely technological perspective, its start/stop animation and puppetry utterly vintage and 'inferior' to our more computer savvy and critical eye. But Kong has personality and that's a commodity hard to come by even employing the best digital wizardry. Time alone has not diminshed the film's impact as an enduring artistic work. Merian C. Cooper modeled the film's protagonist visionary explorer/film maker, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) on his own early exploits. Together with aspiring actress, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), the story emerged as a sort of cosmopolitan ‘beauty and the beast’ melodrama with thrills added in. Denham and his company arrive on a remote island populated by hostile natives. But the focus of the expedition shift to conquering a gargantuan ape and dragging him back to the big city. Billed as the eighth wonder of the world, Kong is put on display for the paying public. Unhappy circumstance for all concerned, that Kong breaks free of his chains and goes about terrorizing the city – killing at will. But Kong has a weak spot for Darrow, capturing and carrying her with him as he scales the Empire State Building.

The creation of Kong was actually a miracle in stop motion animation for its day, employing an eighteen inch steel skeletal puppet covered in rabbit fir and latex. Despite Kong’s diminutive reality, on screen he rages like a colossus, thanks to special effects master Willis O’Brien. O’Brien had created several semi-convincing dinosaurs for another project at RKO entitled ‘Creation.’ But the studio’s penny-pinching, coupled with the impact of the Depression put an end to that project. O’Brien’s dinosaurs were destined for better things. They appear in several key sequences of Kong.

Warner Home Video has searched the world’s archives looking for a serviceable print of King Kong. What they’ve unearthed does indeed provide a more refined and detailed image than perhaps has ever been seen since the film’s debut. Yet, the results are not entirely satisfying. The gray scale is solid with soft grayish black levels and, at times, blooming whites. Film grain is excessive but very natural looking on Blu-ray. The image is not smooth however. Age related artefacts have been tempered, but the print is far from pristine. Is this the best Kong will ever look on home video? Probably. RKO was hardly a studio known for its preservation methods and a good many of their classic films remain in peril of deteriorating beyond repair.

The audio is mono. There is an obvious background hiss during quiescent scenes. Extras are all direct imports from Warner's lavish 2 disc DVD set and include an intense and immersive ‘making of’ documentary featuring actual production stills, archival interviews – as well as critiques and a reconstruction of Kong in action with director, Peter Jackson, and, the masterful biography; I Am King Kong; on the filmic exploits and legacy of Merian C. Cooper.

Aside: I am not a big fan of Warner (or any other studio for that matter) squeezing a ton of extra features on a single Blu-ray along with a 2 hr movie. Warner has done this with The Wizard of Oz. They've even managed compressing the lengthy Gone With The Wind on a single Blu-ray. Blu-ray's compression ratio is far superior to DVD. But why is that cause to jam pack a single disc with extras when the movie itself could have probably benefited from an even higher bit rate if it was the only content being mastered onto a single disc. Extras are extras. They belong on an 'extra' disc. Nevertheless, this minting of King Kong looks far more impressive on Blu-ray than it ever did on DVD and comes recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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