Sunday 18 June 2006

Sunday 18 June 2006
DIRECTOR: Peter Jackson WRITERS: Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens & Peter Jackson.
CAST: Naomi Watts (Ann Darrow), Adrien Brody (Jack Driscoll), Jack Black (Carl Denham), Andy Serkis (Lumpy/Kong), Thomas Kretschmann (Engelhorn) more...

Peter Jackson is surely now the undisputed grandmaster of blockbuster cinema. Hot on the heels of his phenomenal success with The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (11 Oscars for the final movie alone...), Jackson turned his attention to his dream project -- a remake of his favourite movie, King Kong (1933).

In the famous story's update, Naomi Watts replaces Fay Wray as Ann Darrow, a dispirited New York actress recruited by struggling maverick director Carl Denham (Black) to shoot a movie on an uncharted island, along with playwright Jack Driscoll (Brody) and the motley crew of The S.S Venture.

Once they reach Skull Island, the team discover it's populated not only by a savage tribe of people hidden behind a colossal wall, but also with giant monsters -- in the shape of dinosaurs, huge bats, enormous insects and a 25-foot gorilla known as Kong...

It’s a straight-forward B-movie plot, already famous to everyone after 72 years of exposure to the public. And, even if you’ve never actually seen the original black-and-white adventure, the iconic image of Kong straddling the Empire State Building swatting bi-planes out of the air is the stuff of movie legend.

In translating King Kong for modern audiences, Jackson wisely keeps the story grounded in its 1930's setting and brings superlative visual complexity to the screen. Movie monsters haven’t wowed the imagination this much since Spielberg’s dinosaurs first stomped across our screens back in '93. Perfecting techniques used throughout Lord Of The Rings, WETA Digital Workshop have again set a new benchmark for the rest of the effects industry to aspire to. British actor Andy Serkis (LOTR’s Gollum) "plays" the titular ape by utilizing motion-capture technology, helping bring a sense of realism to Kong that the original could never achieve with stop-motion animated models. Even the 1976 remake had to struggle with a silly man-in-a-monkey-suit technique.

No such compromises in 2005. Kong is now a creature of sheer beauty throughout Jackson's movie. He fights, he runs, he swings, he leaps, he breathes, he sulks, he laughs… he lives! In many ways the success of the movie relied on the complexity of Kong's performance and the digital character’s ability to interact and emote with a real cast… and the WETA crew nail it to perfection.

Plaudits must also go to Oscar-nominee Naomi Watts, given a fairly rudimentary character on the page, but able to make Ann Darrow’s sweet relationship with Kong utterly believable. A scene where Ann and Kong "ice-skate" together in Central Park, before the great ape climbs to his eventual doom, is just pure old-fashioned movie magic, and sure to tug at everyone’s heart strings. Amazingly too, the fact everyone knows how the story ends actually works in the movie’s favour -- as the distant whine of approaching biplanes brings a melancholy feel to the great ape’s last stand...

Elsewhere, production values are all superb -- particularly the impressive CGI rendering of 1933 New York City, being so realistic it’s not even noticeably a special-effect. As always in movies of such mammoth undertaking, there is the odd effects moments that could have done with further polishing: a dinosaur stampede suffers from some badly composited shots, and a sequence with a pole-vaulting native is below-par and ridiculous anyway. But these are very minor quibbles in an otherwise unrivalled production.

The actors involved all do a very good job, particularly Watts and Serkis as already stated, but the greatest surprise in some ways is Jack Black as Carl Denham. Black is most famous as one-half of a comedy rock band Tenacious D, and as a high-energy comedian in films such as School Of Rock, so to see him provide a credible and engaging performance of such seriousness is very satisfying.

Adrien Brody does solid work, but his character is rarely more than a handy plot device to push events along. Still, in earlier scene when his character looks to be more prevalent than he eventually becomes, Brody’s brings his usual goofy hangdog charm to proceedings, before the ape takes over and his involvement becomes sidelined.

If there is a problem with King Kong 2005, it’s the running time. King Kong is big in many ways. At three hours, the movie is twice the length of the original -- yet tells essentially the same story. Jackson takes an hour to set-up his characters before they arrive on Skull Island, then overloads a mid-section with far more monster set-pieces than the original had, before the admittedly well-judged final act in New York.

Personally, I thought the set-up was slightly too long, but never boring. I enjoyed the slow build-up and getting to know the characters (even if most of the cast don't get any kind of satisfying pay-off by the movie's conclusion). Another slight quibble is the sheer amount of perils involving monsters in Act II. The initial adrenaline rush slowly diminishes due to overkill at times, although there are some amazing spectacles to behold. However, even these storytelling didn't ruined the experience for me. A popcorn film being criticized for having too much character set-up and monster fights is generally in a good position...

Overall, King Kong is a chest-beating success. Jackson’s lifelong ambition to remake his favourite film wasn’t the potential folly some expected it to be. It's clear Jackson knows King Kong inside-out, so this remake improves where necessary (the Ann-Kong dynamic is far better -- actually takings its cue from the '76 version), updates the monsters with modern techniques, but never forgets the heart and power of its illustrious predecessor. It's rare such a blatantly silly and effects-laden movie can stirr such emotion in an audience, so enjoy the experience...

After 72 years, Kong is still the King!


PICTURE: The quality of the movie is awesome visually, with its anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen image beautiful in all regards. 1933 New York is just sumptuous (both in daylight and night), the Venture is suitable grimy and Skull Island's jungles are lush and beautiful. This is demo material.

SOUND: The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is excellent, with a gorgeous mix of sound from all departments. The sound effects are perfect, the surround-sound mix is wonderful, and James Newton Howard's brilliant score is thrilling. There is no DTS mix (perhaps on a later edition) but for now this DD5.1 transfer is just wonderful.


Post-Production Diaries. If you followed the making of King Kong via the website then you've probably seen the Production Diaries that site hosted, or maybe you bought them separately on DVD. Anyway, the diaries presented here are the Post-Production Diaries, and cover all aspects of the film after principal photography (pickups, sound-effects, visual-effects, dialogue recording, premieres, etc). This is 3-hours of essential material for fans of King Kong, and especially anyone interested in making movies. There's practically no filler material, and everything shown is interesting, revealing and occasionally quite funny. Fantastic.

Skull Island: A Natural History. This is an interesting documentary that blends reality with fiction to give you an insight into Skull Island's history and ecosystem. It's quite amazing to see the level of detail and thought that went into Skull Island, from creating all the creatures, to providing a believable history to the island's geography and its indigenous people. This is packed will gorgeous concept art and is very entertaining.

Kong's New York, 1933. Another documentary, this time focusing on New York. The emphasis is on reality for this extra feature, and gives you an insight into the 1930's time-period King Kong takes place in. Everything is discussed, from The Great Depression, vaudeville theatre, to skyscrapers. Definitely one for the history buff, primarily, but it's certainly interesting.

This is a great release of King Kong, with a fantastic audio/visual experience, and some very entertaining extra features. Although, despite being a Special Edition, I'm sure a better version is on its way with more extensive special features, but for now this first release should please most fans. The menu screens are slick, although not as memorable as you'd perhaps expect, but the packaging art is first-rate. This is an essential purchase for any fan of escapist action-adventure cinema.