Director Peter Jackson's mostly entertaining and occasionally dazzling follow-up to "Lord of the Rings" is this epic remake of "King Kong", a massive production captured for online fans (see the "King Kong: Production Diaries") DVD Set, which offers all of the featurettes broadcast online) by Jackson's crew. The picture opens with jobless actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) seeking work and coming up short everywhere she searches. Meanwhile, Carl Denham (a wonderful Jack Black) is on the run from financiers) and his latest idea is to run off with screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and a last-minute crew in order to try and make a film on an long-lost island. The only issue - he doesn't have a leading lady...yet.
He literally runs into Darrow and soon enough, the group is packed aboard a freighter setting sail for Skull Island. While on-board, the picture gets the set-up out of the way, as Darrow meets her co-star, Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler), yet ends up falling for screenwriter Driscoll (oddly, the latter occurs within the span of a scene.) The picture does take too long to get going (Skull Island doesn't come into the picture until nearly an hour in) and while the performances are great and the visual effects are first-rate, this doesn't change the fact that one can feel bits and pieces from the opening hour that could have pretty easily landed on the editing room floor. Build-up is great and I'm not saying that Jackson should have revealed Kong in the opening moments, but this is just a little too much - 15-20 minutes dropped from the opening 75 could have helped out the pace of the film's opening third quite nicely. The entire movie could have lost a good 45 minutes in all. A couple of hours and change would have been fine - 188 minutes is just too bloated for this tale.
Once the movie finally drops anchor on Skull Island, it does begin to gain steam as the group runs smack into tribesfolk who kidnap Ann and plan to use her as a sacrifice. When Kong comes along, he decides that Ann is more friend than midnight snack and takes her back to his side of the island. When a series of dinos and other giant creatures come calling, it's Kong who saves the girl in an exciting sequence that offers state-of-the-art visual effects. While most of these scenes work, a few don't (see a ridiculous sequence where giant insects attack the Brody character and another character has the not-so-bright idea to try and literally shoot them off as they climb on the Brody character, who continues to move.) Once the picture starts throwing dino attacks into the mix in the second half of the Skull Island hour, it essentially never lets up as the film makes its way towards the last third, where Kong is taken back to Manhattan and breaks out, going on a rampage to find Ann.
Impressively, Jackson's is able to nicely portray the connection between beauty and beast. It's thanks not only to very good visual effects that boast strong detail, but a marvelous performance by Andy Serkis, whose motions were captured for Kong (Serkis also did Gollum in "Lord of the Rings"). If the audience doesn't feel sympathy for Kong, the movie loses heart and doesn't connect as strongly. Thankfully, the expressive creature turned out to be a fantastic creation by Serkis and the FX team, especially in the emotional final moments.
Thankfully, the film's prime FX work doesn't provide the best performance in the picture. Naomi Watts offers a great performance as Ann, as she offers a lovely mix of sweetness, spunk, strength and vulnerability. Jack Black is the other highlight as the crafty con of a filmmaker. As much as I've liked Black's performances in the past, I wasn't sure if he'd be a right fit in the film. While his performance tones down his usual persona and remains largely serious, he still manages to create an engaging, crafty and quite watchable villain. The only performance that I didn't find compelling was Adrien Brody's, and that's largely because Driscoll never becomes an entirely well-developed character.
Overall, "Kong" is not a film without some flaws - a few scenes become a bit too ridiculous (even for a film like this) and Jackson could have made this a more straightforward, swift picture with some cutting, especially in the opening half. Still, despite some concerns - and I didn't think the picture was without a few - "Kong" remains an entertaining popcorn flick with solid performances, strong effects and some moments that are quite moving.
This extended cut of "Kong" adds another 13 minutes worth of footage to the picture. The scene selection menus on both film discs do note which scenes are new and which offer extended footage. New scenes include a narrow escape from a giant sea creature and some other little swamp inhabitants, a brief encounter with a bizarre bird and an attack from a Triceratops. Examples of scenes with additional footage are: the insect pit scene and Kong's escape/race through the streets of NYC. 230 new effects shots are, according to the cover, included in the new footage.
Overall, the few instances of new/extended scenes provide some fun footage. As for the two big additions: while it's rather brief, the Triceratops attack is tense and although it goes on a couple of beats too long, the attack in the swamp has its moments.
VIDEO: "King Kong" is presented by Universal in 2.35:1 (1080p/VC-1) and the results are - aside from a few minor concerns - tremendously pleasing. The majority of the film was presented here with excellent clarity and detail, as minor details (hairs, texture, elements of the sets) appeared sharp and smooth during most scenes. Some minor grain is seen at times, but this is an intentional element of the cinematography and doesn't prove to be any sort of distraction. The only unintentional concern regarding this transfer is that there are a few instances where the FX look a little weaker than I'd remembered due to the crystal clarity of the images. Colors remain stunning, appearing bold and rich, with excellent saturation and no smearing or other concerns.
SOUND: The film's DTS-HD 5.1 presentation is - as one might expect - an utter powerhouse, offering thunderous effects and aggressive surround use. Although the action sequences of the last half of the picture are certainly the most head-spinning, the surrounds are used nicely in the first half for ambience and the occasional effect. Sound effects are dynamic and bold, sounding crisp and well-recorded. The enjoyable, emotional score from James Newton Howard is also presented here with satisfying fidelity. Dialogue seemed clean and clear, with no distortion or other faults. The DTS-HD presentation is certainly a few steps up from the DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation, as it provides deeper, tighter bass and a more transparent, precise sound.
EXTRAS: The highly informative commentary from the DVD by director Peter Jackson and screenwriter Phillippa Boyens returns again here, as does some of the featurette material, here presented in Picture-In-Picture format via Universal's usual U-Control feature.
Final Thoughts: "King Kong" brings Kong to life superbly and contains some solid performances and emotional moments that worked. The picture is noticably longer than it needs to be and some scenes are a little ridiculous even for this, but overall, the movie certainly does entertain - especially in the more brisk second half. The Blu-Ray edition offers thrilling audio/video quality and a few extras. Recommended.
The Film B+