Kids loving monsters and dinosaurs is a universal thing. There’s something about a giant creature that can topple buildings and step on people that ignites the fire inside a child’s imagination like nothing else. As a young monster fan growing up, King Kong represented what Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone represented for action films in the 80s; sure, you could like both, but there was definitely one that you liked more than the other, and in my case, I always enjoyed Godzilla more than King Kong. And perhaps this wasn’t a fair comparison, as Godzilla has had infinitely more movies made about him than King Kong has. But nevertheless, I always gravitated more towards Godzilla than the Eighth Wonder of the World. However, if I were to take my favorite Godzilla film growing up (Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla) and put it next to the original 1933 Kong film, I think that my younger self would agree with me that King Kong is a far better movie than anything Godzilla has had his name attached to (with the possible exception of the 2014 remake).
The fact that a movie like King Kong was released in 1933 during the height of the Great Depression still boggles my mind. How could a movie studio greenlight a big budget special effects extravaganza during such a time and expect to make their money back? The answer is escapism, and boy, does King Kong offer this in spades. Just to illustrate, let’s take a look at a checklist of all of the things on display:
- Real, down to earth characters in a fantastic setting
- Exotic and strange locations
- A love triangle
- Gigantic sets
- A larger than life orchestral score
- State of the art special effects
- King Kong
- King Kong fights several dinosaurs
- King Kong runs amok in New York City
In 1933, just a few of those things would have probably been enough to make a successful film, but the fact that it had all of those things is unbelievable. There was also the fact that there had never really been anything like it before. Yes, the stop motion animation may look crude by today’s standards, but to audiences in the thirties this would have been the equivalent to a James Cameron epic. And it’s not just the stop motion, there were also life size animatronic mock ups of King Kong’s hands and head. Pretty impressive stuff, and beyond ambitious for the time. I could go on and on over the technical achievements with the movie, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll simply recommend watching the documentary included in the bonus features to get a more in depth look into just how groundbreaking this movie was for the time and the impact it’s had on the movie industry.
However, despite its numerous technical achievements, King Kong does suffer from some problems inherent from the time it was released, mainly blatant sexism and racial stereotypes. Depending on your sensibilities and how tolerant you are of these things being present in older movies may impact whether or not you like King Kong if you are that rare first time viewer. I, myself, recognize that these things are here, and they are bad, but not to a point that they ruin the entire movie for me. And as far as the acting is concerned, which can sometimes go into the extreme with actors of this generation (many of whom were former stage performers who were used to playing it up for the back row), no one plays it up to the point of being too hammy or over the top. You may argue different, but considering how larger than life this movie is, I think that everyone’s performance is perfectly acceptable and fitting for the world we’re presented. One personal favorite moment of mine is the guy walking into the theater saying that this show had better be good as “these tickets cost twenty bucks!“. It’s an honest and true to life moment in what is otherwise a complete fantasy.
It’s telling how successful this film was, given that Hollywood has tried to reboot it twice, with the third attempt coming soon. However, no matter how many Kong sequels, rip offs, or remakes there have been, none have been able to match the impact or success of the original. Perhaps the greatest feat it was able to achieve was the ability to continue to entertain audiences over eighty years after its initial release. Truly, King Kong was and continues to remain a wonder of the cinematic world.
THE VIDEO – 8.5/10
Released on Blu-ray back in 2010 (and rereleased earlier this month using the same video transfer) King Kong thankfully has a transfer fit for a King. Despite having a VC-1 encode, the film still touts an impressive picture, as long as you’re willing to accept that a film from 1933 is going to have some at times excessive film grain. But as I’ve said many times in the past, film grain isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What it provides here is excellent detail on faces, backgrounds, clothing, and the animatronic head of King Kong as he flashes those pearly whites for Ms. Darrow.
Black levels are also well handled and there are no signs of edge enhancement. Despite being a seven-year-old transfer, I’m happy to say that it more than holds up.
THE AUDIO – 8/10
I can’t tell you how frustrating it is when a classic film has its original soundtrack slapped on a Blu-ray in an out of date Dolby Digital track. Thankfully, Warner Bros chose years ago to remaster the original Mono soundtrack in DTS-HD, and the results are good, considering the age of the audio elements. Granted, you’re never going to have a reference quality track filled with dynamic audio and thundering bass from a film approaching its 90th anniversary, but what we get is up to the task. Despite some occasional audio hiss and tinny sounding voices, King Kong sounds just fine. The biggest benefactor of the lossless track is undeniably Max Steiner’s classic score, which sports surprisingly good clarity.
Ideally, I would have loved to have heard a remixed 5.1 track, replete with monstrous bass and surround tracks that could open up Steiner’s score and let it breathe even more. Alas, all we get is the Mono track. Mind you, I’m not complaining at all, as the Mono track on the disc is more than up to the challenge, I guess I just wanted to have my cake and eat it too. Maybe we’ll get a brand new remixed track for the film’s 85th or 90th anniversary.
THE SPECIAL FEATURES – 10/10
This is what I’m talking about. A feature length, extensively detailed documentary; deleted, or in this case, restored and reshot scenes; a thoughtful and insightful commentary track; plus, much more make up a very entertaining and informative batch of special features that covers everything you’d ever want to know about the film. The restored spider pit sequence is particularly fun to watch and shows how much time and effort went into this release (the original 2010 Blu-ray that is, this 2017 reissue only sports new cover art).
*Commentary by Visual Effects Veterans Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralson, with Interview Excerpts of Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray
*I’m King Kong! The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper Profiles the Original King Kong’s Guiding Hand – SD
*7-Part Documentary RKO Production 601: The Making of King Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World – SD
*Original Creation Test Footage with Ray Harryhausen Commentary – HD
*The Lost Spider Pit Sequence – HD
THE FINAL RATING – 9/10
Now this is how you release a classic film on Blu-ray. A commendable remaster, a lossless version of the original audio, and an extensive collection of special features and documentaries make King Kong one of the better classic film releases on Blu-ray. If you’re a fan, have a passing interest due to the release of Kong: Skull Island, or just missed it when it was originally released on Blu-ray in 2010, then I would highly recommend adding this one to your collection. The film more than holds up even after eighty-four years and is beautifully presented on the Blu-ray.