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Warner Home Video presents
The King Kong Collection (King Kong/Son of Kong/Mighty Joe Young) (1933-1949)

"It was beauty killed the beast."
- Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: November 13, 2005

Stars: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Terry Moore
Other Stars: Noble Johnson, Victor Wong, Helen Mack, John Marston, Ed Brady, Ben Johnson
Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (giant monster violence)
Run Time: 04h:27m:18s
Release Date: November 22, 2005
UPC: 053939733426
Genre: fantasy


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A-A-B A

DVD Review

It's been a long, long wait. Nearly eight years into the DVD format, finally Warner has come through with a DVD of one of the greatest fantasy films of all time: Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation masterpiece, King Kong. For the most part, the wait has been worth it, since the intervening years have been devoted to locating the best possible source materials and doing an extensive restoration. The film, one of the last AFI Top 100 to make it to the format, is available in several different versions: a two-disc special edition, a collector's tin of that same special edition plus a reproduction of the original program from Grauman's Chinese Theater, and as part of a four-disc set that includes its sequel and its semi-sequel, Mighty Joe Young.

The main attraction is King Kong itself, however, still matchless for its blending of ordinary life and the fantastic. That's due in large part to the careful setup of the first 45 minutes of the picture. Playing on the past natural dramas and sociology films of directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, such as Grass and Chang, the picture starts off almost as if it's going to be a travelogue, with Robert Armstrong taking the part of Cooper as showman Carl Denham, who is carrying starving actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to Skull Island for her rendezvous with a legendary giant ape. This extended opening sequence gets us in a position of knowing the characters pretty well. Darrow's rehearsals of expressions of fear similarly set the stage for the much more genuine screaming that she'll be doing when she meets Kong and the Mesozoic denizens of Skull Island. Another feature of this extended opening sequence is to give Darrow and sailor Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) time to not only meet cute but have a reasonable development to their romance. It doesn't hurt that the script crackles with snappy dialogue that's plenty of fun.

Of course, the main attraction is the animation by Willis O'Brien, and it still holds up incredibly well after more than 70 years. Kong has a distinct personality and plenty of expression, making him a memorable creation far beyond a typical movie monster. And it's not just the ape that is memorable, but the dinosaurs are as well. The brontosaur (never mind that he seems carnivorous) sneers at his intended tiny victims, and the interaction between Kong and the allosaur as they fight to the death has seldom been matched since in any technological improvement. The one weak point is the full-size Kong head, which makes an unwelcome appearance all too often, and doesn't match the animation model in the slightest and usually looks goofy, even when chomping down on one of the natives of the island.

One of the notable features of King Kong is that it includes the very first of the great film scores, a classic and ominous rendering by Max Steiner. Its several leitmotifs for the major characters are immediately recognizable even when they show up in quite different circumstances as library scores years later. Since the picture is without dialogue for long stretches, the presence of a powerful score is a necessity, and Steiner fulfills the requirement with aplomb. The score is more than equalled by the artistic vistas on Kong's island. Using multiple glass matte paintings and miniatures, O'Brien realizes a fantasy world straight out of Gustave Doré, with dark objects in the foreground and a glowing background that heightens the drama and the sense of a fantasy world that's being created.

After the Production Code was adopted in the mid-1930s, King Kong suffered the indignity of several sequences of violence by Kong being scissored on re-release, as well as those bits that emphasized Wray's sexuality (not to mention the memorably perverse sequence of Kong peeling Wray's clothing off like a banana and then sniffing his finger). Those segments were restored in the 1980s, but usually in poor-looking and contrasty segments that were a poor match. That's not a problem with this edition, which melds this censored footage back into the film in a seamless manner that makes it all look quite as good as the rest of the film.

Kong was such a success that a sequel had to be churned out quickly. Amazingly fast, indeed, considering the labor-intensive nature of the stop-motion process. Nonetheless, 1933 also saw the release of The Son of Kong, a quick sequel that finds Denham heading back to Skull Island with Captain Engelhorn (Frank Reicher) to see what else he might be able to retrieve to wreak havoc in New York City. The second film opens shortly after the ending of the first one, with Denham pursued by creditors and facing indictment for the havoc wreaked by Kong. Fleeing with Captain Engelhorn, Denham heads for the South Seas, where he meets singer Hilda (Helen Mack), who stows away on the boat too after her father is killed. Rumors of a lost treasure on Skull Island send the group back, only to find a smaller (12-foot tall) white Kong, apparently the King's son.

The sequel is really kiddie fare, with little that's not child-safe (though one man is eaten by a dinosaur). Little Kong is played entirely for laughs, for after being rescued from quicksand by Denham he's mostly a gigantic puppy-dog, as opposed to the threatening figure that was Daddy. The film has plenty of plot, with murder, mutiny, and lost treasures, all packed into 70 minutes of time. Once again it's nearly 45 minutes before Little Kong makes his first appearance, but in this case it's mostly just to save on the time needed for animation. Nonetheless, there are some good moments here, such as Junior's battles with a cave bear and a (small) dinosaur. None of them, however, have the impact that we find in the original. The ending is rather pat, though it also has some decent pathos. O'Brien and director Ernest B. Schoedsack clearly were trying not to repeat themselves, and in that respect at least they succeeded.

Not really a Kong film at all, but nonetheless considered part of the giant gorilla trilogy, is Mighty Joe Young (1949), which is notable not only for being one of O'Brien's films but also the first feature for animation legend Ray Harryhausen. In this picture, little Jill Young, living on an African plantation, acquires a baby gorilla, which she names Joe. But he must have some Kong blood in him, for he grows to about 15 feet tall. Huckster Max O'Hara (Robert Armstrong again, in a role like Carl Denham gone to seed) convinces the adult Jill (Terry Moore) to come with Joe to be the featured attraction in his Hollywood nightclub. Things don't go much better for Joe than they did for Kong, however, when some souses decide it would be fun to get Joe liquored up. Belligerent and on the loose, he destroys the nightclub and finds himself under a death sentence. Can Jill find a way to save Joe and get him back where he belongs?

O'Brien mostly supervised rather than performing animation himself, leaving the primary chores to the talented young Harryhausen, and the results are quite spectacular. Several of the set pieces, such as the destruction of the nightclub and the climactic fire sequence, involve enormous numbers of pieces, all being animated a single frame at a time. The DVD format allows one to inspect the work closely for the first time, and it's really a revelation of the animator's skills. The work bears close inspection quite well, and makes for a fascinating study.

Mighty Joe Young falls somewhere between the two Kong films in several ways. Joe is of a size between the two Kongs, and his temperament is somewhere between the two as well, with some of the humor of little Kong and some of the belligerence of the elder Kong but without the vicious temper. Thematically, Joe is even more of a victim than Kong, as he suffers the cruelties and indignities of civilization. Intriguingly, Armstrong's character seems to have learned from Denham's mistakes (is he really Denham, still dodging creditors under an assumed name?) and makes efforts not to let Joe meet the same fate as Kong, though that name is never mentioned. Star Terry Moore is pretty good, though her romantic interest, Ben Johnson, is fairly dull and uninteresting. Moore does a fine job of credibly interacting with the rear-projected Joe, even though she couldn't see anything on the screen most of the time. The picture has a first-rate mix of humor and pathos that makes Mighty Joe Young a worthy successor to the Kong family indeed.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The image looks quite fine, considering the checkered history of the RKO archives. Heavily printed through numerous re-releases, the source materials for King Kong were not what they could have been, but through scouring of other archives and restoration the film looks quite nice indeed. There's a certain amount of softness, but that helps with the verisimilitude of the animation too. There's very little damage or speckling visible on the print, which looks excellent for its age. A certain amount of flicker is inherent in the film, and can't really be helped. The rear projection sequences, which have looked rather dodgy in other prints I've seen, blend much more nicely here. It's a huge improvement over the contrasty version that previously appeared on DVD in the UK Region 2. The image is thoughtfully windowboxed to minimize the cropping due to overscan.

Son of Kong for the most part looks just as good as the original, if not even better in places. Just before the finale there's a patch that is in extremely rough condition, however. The opening and ending credits only are windowboxed. Mighty Joe Young looks great throughout, which makes sense because it's quite a lot newer than the other two films. On the commentary, Harryhausen complains that the fire sequence is now just tinted orange, instead of using the original two-color Technicolor. I've never seen the version that he describes, and I wonder whether it still even exists. At any rate, it isn't here.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Rather than tricking up a 5.1 track, Warner has correctly kept King Kong and his brethren with their original 1.0 mono intact, and the original sounds quite good for early 1930s sound. The dialogue is quite clear and clean, and hiss and noise are at quite tolerable levels (though not obliterated). Steiner's score suffers a little from the limitations of technology at the time, with a compressed range, but it sounds as good as it ever has. It's a solid audio restoration that doesn't betray its source materials. Son of Kong has a spotty audio, with some reels sounding perfectly fine and others having substantial noise and hiss. Mighty Joe Young sounds fine for an optical mono track, with the dialogue sounding particularly fresh.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 82 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring b>Flying Down to Rio, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers
3 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) Ray Harryhausen, Ken Ralston, Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray 2) Ray Harryhausen, Ken Ralston, Terry Moore
Packaging: Unknown
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:35m:57s (KK); 00h:4

Extra Extras:
  1. Realization of lost spider pit sequence
  2. Test footage for Creation
Extras Review: Disc 1 of King Kong sports a set of trailers for all three giant ape films, plus other films produced by Merian C. Cooper, which give a good indication of the widely varying pictures that he oversaw. The feature has a commentary, but it's really an enormous disappointment. Most of the running time is devoted to master animator Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston, and while they offer a few interesting tidbits they spend much of the time just admiring the compositions and the shots. Although it's also billed as featuring Cooper and Wray, their participation, edited in from earlier interviews, is quite abbreviated. Shockingly, Wray is limited to only a couple very brief (and nearly irrelevant) comments.

The second disc fares much better, almost entirely devoted to two very substantial documentaries. The first of these is a program (56m:56s) devoted to the life and career of Merian C. Cooper, I'm King Kong, produced by Kevin Brownlow for TCM and featuring Alec Baldwin as narrator. It's mostly the usual talking heads and film clips, but it includes a wealth of fascinating detail that forms an excellent overview of the producer/director's career from the nature films to RKO to his collaborations with John Ford to his technical achievements, such as the promotion of three-strip Technicolor and Cinerama.

The centerpiece of the bonus features, however, is the second documentary, RKO Production 601, a massive seven-part making-of King Kong (2h:38m:45s). Nearly everything one might want to know about the origins of the film is presented here. Since Willis O'Brien was secretive and permitted no footage to be shot of the animation technique, one doesn't expect to see much. Prepare to be surprised, since Peter Jackson, director of the forthcoming Kong remake, took an active part here and, with Weta Workshop, reverse engineered many of O'Brien's techniques. We get to see the construction of another Kong and other creatures, faithful to the originals, and learn how the beautiful compositions were created. It's terrific work that surpasses all expectations. One point of curiosity that has been a holy grail of sorts, the lost spider pit sequence, remains lost, but Jackson, Kong fan that he is, used the things he learned in the process to take existing stills, art concepts, models, surviving footage and the original shooting script to create a realization of what the scissored sequence might have looked like (as well as a snipped Styracosaurus chase that gets the sailors on the log that falls into the spider pit in the first place). It's not cut into the film since it isn't authentic, but it is available on the second disc, with framing material to put it in context. The documentary also provides a close look at the creation of this sequence. It feels more frenetic than anything in the actual film, but Jackson provides reasonably firm rationales for the multiple monsters that appear so it's hard to quibble with him. Finally, the surviving five minutes of footage from O'Brien's aborted Creation (1931) are presented with commentary by Ray Harryhausen.

The Son of Kong is presented on a single-layer disc, with no extras other than the trailer that also appears on the King Kong disc. There's much more, however, on Mighty Joe Young, starting with a commentary featuring Harryhausen, Ralston, and star Terry Moore. Where the Harryhausen commentary for Kong disappointed, it's more than redeemed by the active and content-filled commentary here. He was recorded together with the others and they have a chatty and fact-filled conversation that's quite enjoyable to hear and educational as well. Harryhausen also sits down to discuss O'Brien and his art with the Chiodo Brothers in a documentary (22m:49s) that provides some good information, although it duplicates a fair amount contained in both commentaries. Finally, there's a shorter featurette devoted to an examination of the Joe Young armature, with Harryhausen giving a little stop-motion illustration for us. They're both quite nice features that expand upon the commentary very well.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

Three classics of stop-motion animation, available together or separately, that any fantasy fan will absolutely want to own. The transfers are spiffy and there are some great extras here.

 


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