DVD REVIEW: King Kong

Universal
Movie •••• Picture/Sound •••• Extras ••••
The first thing I noticed after picking up this two-disc set was that there are no commentaries. None. Odd, since director Peter Jackson usually enjoys rewarding fans with a wealth of background information on the production of his latest epic. Thinking back on his track record with the Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD, I can only assume that a gargantuan four-disc set is in the works, with an extended cut and hours upon hours of commentaries and added documentaries.

Of course, the theatrical cut of King Kong itself is more than three hours long, and it's (barely) contained on Disc 1 here - along with a 90-second clip for a car commercial that borrows footage for some unimaginative dopiness. As Jackson seems to be saying in the film, "It's not beauty that killed the beast. It's rabid commercial exploitation."

Since King Kong was made by Jackson with much of his merry, multi-Oscar-winning band of filmmakers from the Rings trilogy (now armed with a budget of $207 million!), I expected the highest technical standards in all areas of the movie and the DVD. I wasn't disappointed. Right from the introductory, whirlwind-paced montage of New York in the 1930s, you can tell that we're in for a visual feast. This sequence covers all kinds of locations with extremely different lighting, from back-alley breweries to stage performances to brilliant panoramic shots of the city from high above. All of these iconic images are sharp and bright, with no visible problems. There's plentiful detail, too, so that even in the backgrounds you can read street signs and almost feel the texture of walls. Faces reveal wrinkles and individual stubbles of hair - and because the contrast is also excellent, these close-ups have that roundness you get from a very wide gradation of tones.

Throughout the film, whites are shining, but since most shots are tinted, all I can say about the blacks is that they're probably deeply black under all that yellow and green-blue. Turquoise, it seems, is today's sepia, and its overuse in modern blockbusters has gotten real tired real fast. Just because computer editing allows filmmakers to alter color with ease doesn't mean they should do so with every shot. (And how is the same tint supposed to evoke the 1930s and Mordor?) Anyway, despite those tonal casts, objects are solid, with surprisingly rich, distinct colors that don't bleed. And except for one brontosaurus stampede, the effects are convincing.

The sound is also exceedingly crisp. For the first part of the movie, it's mostly in the front channels. Once Skull Island is sighted, though - signaled by a sudden, unexpected foghorn from the rear - the creepy atmospherics rush in all around you. James Newton Howard's brooding score swirls like the mist that fills the screen, while the sound of surf crashing on deadly cliffs threatens from every corner. This whole ship-tossing sequence in Chapter 22 is a great surround-system demo, and it looks damn good, too.

Another impressive sequence is in Chapter 26, "The Sacrifice." It's Kong's big entrance, and his approach is announced by the sound of cracking trees coming ever closer from behind you. Fire streams from the watchtowers around the great wall, heightening the immersive experience. And like all the other scenes featuring Kong, this one is emotionally involving because of the performance of Andy Serkis as the big ape - a portrayal as brilliant as his Gollum in the Rings trilogy. At times he makes Kong look like Sgt. Rock, at others like Yul Brynner in The King and I.

The main extra is a 2.5-hour documentary that focuses on the 33 weeks of postproduction (the production itself having been covered in the Peter Jackson Diaries DVD set released in December). The director leads us from his favorite editing-room couch to the various film units, including digital effects, miniatures, and sound. My favorite section, on motion capture, shows how Serkis - via a reflecting suit, multiple cameras, and computer processing - is transformed into the final 25-foot ape. One nice touch in the documentary is that Jackson answers questions submitted by fans online.

Also included is a fun, 20-minute featurette on Skull Island in the form of a tabloid TV mockumentary about this great mystery. Better yet is an informative half hour on Depression-era New York, telling of the hundreds of thousands of people who lived in a shanty-town in Central Park and the inspiring construction of the Empire State Building. It all helps make this DVD one that should be on Top 10 lists for all-around excellence - until the four-disc set (or the HD DVD) arrives. [PG-13] English, Dolby Digital 5.1; letterboxed (2.35:1) and anamorphic widescreen; two dual-layer discs.

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