Friday, November 25, 2005

King Kong DVD

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For years, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack's 1933 giant gorilla classic King Kong has been one of the most wished-for films to be given the big-deal DVD treatment. Cinema lovers have finally got their wish, and Warner Brothers have outdone themselves with the package they've put together.

Everyone knows the story of King Kong - he was the king of Skull Island, a mythical "land that time forgot" populated with ferocious dinosaurs and superstitious natives. His island is discovered by adventurer and nature documentarian Carl Denham and the beautiful actress Ann Darrow. Denham brings him back to New York City, proclaiming him as "The Eighth Wonder of the World", but he breaks loose, kidnapping Darrow and going on a rampage, ultimatley being shot down by airplanes from the top of the Empire State Building. It's the first, and arguably the very best example of a powerfully empathetic character created entirely from special effects. Kong was nothing but an eighteen-inch puppet made of latex and rabbit fur, and yet, when he is shot down by the airplanes, it's one of the saddest moments in film history. It's a testament to the genius of Cooper and Shoedsack for weaving such a magnificent story, and stop-motion pioneer Willis O'Brien, who singlehandedly invented damn near all of the effects techniques utilized in the film, all of which are still amazing to behold today.

The restoration job is gorgeous - all that work put into scouring studio vaults for the best-quality original elements has paid off wonderously. Kong hasn't looked this good possibly since it was released. The extra features are stellar, too - the second disc contains a seven-part documentary RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World, with extensive contributions from the likes of Ray Harryhausen, Peter Jackson, John Landis, Joe Dante, Rick Baker, and a boatload of others, as well as a back-story on Cooper and Shoedsack, who were very interesting, adventureous character in real life (Carl Denham is actually modeled off of Cooper), with footage from their old films, sketches and storyboards by Willis O'Brien, and tons more. One of the most intriguing parts of the documentary involves Jackson and Company's re-creation of some of the puppets, sets and special effects shots that were used in the original, which they did for no other reason than to learn and gain an appreciation for the craft of Willis O'Brien. Additionally, the crew re-created the legendary lost "Spider Pit Scene" where the sailors were shaken off of the log by Kong and eaten by gigantic bugs, which was allegedly cut out of the picture because it freaked audiences out so much they couldn't pay attention to the rest of the story. Jackson says time and again that it isn't meant to be serious film archeology, they were just having a bit of fun, even though they went to meticulous lengths to build the puppets based on photographs and sketches, and even going as far as to x-ray an original Triceratops model from Jackson's collection in order to see the armature inside. The results are quite fun, if not pretty tongue-in-cheek: the large arachnids bear a resemblence to many of Harryhausen's creatures, and they also opted to have the animators themselves play the doomed sailors, allowing them the rare honor of being eaten by their own creations.

In addition to RKO Production 601 there's a short bio-doc on Merian Cooper, a gallery of trailers for some of his movies, as well as some test footage for Creation, a Willis O'Brien dinosaur film which was canned right right before he began work on Kong, and the sets and puppets from which were re-used in his subsequent films. And the best thing about this DVD is that it's available in three different sets - there's the Collector's Edition, which I have, that comes in a handsome tin case with a reporduction of the Gruman's Chinese Theater pamphlet from the Los Angeles premiere, and a handfull of mini-posters, there's a cheaper release without the tin and additional goodies, and there's a three-pack with the lighthearted sequel, Son of Kong, and the fun O'Brien-Harryhausen colaboration Mighty Joe Young, as well. It seems that commercial DVD labels are finally realizing film lovers' appreciation for Criterion-style labor-of-love restoration jobs and DVD packages, and Warner is ahead of all its competitors in that respect. I take my hat off to them.

After watching this, I've become really excited for Peter Jackson's remake, which looks completely incredble. I saw the trailer on the big screen when I went to see Harry Potter last week, and oh, when he leapt up into the air to smack that biplane out of the sky, I damn near soiled my pants with joy - nothing J.K. Rowling could offer me would match it. The way Jackson talks about the original film in the documentaries, it seems he will be approaching it with the same amount of respect and enthusiasm he took when making The Lord of the Rings, which should make for one fine film indeed. I eagerly await it.

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