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Return to Skull Island

December 10th, 2008
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Among my very favorite DVD sets are Peter Jackson’s extended versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Being a fanatical LOTR fan, it is a delight to have longer versions of the films that incorporate action, character moments, and lots of other fun details drawn from the books.  The LOTR extended DVDs also boast some of the most comprehensive and enjoyable extras I have ever seen – detailed, feature-length documentaries that cover every aspect of the making of the films, from the casting to the production to the music to the editing to the guys who made the chain mail for all the elvish armor.  Just fantastic stuff, and it gives us a wonderful peek into the experiences of all the talented craftsmen and women who toiled on the LOTR films for over half a decade.

Because of that, and because I enjoyed Peter Jackson’s King Kong more than most, when the extended DVD set of King Kong was released over two years ago (in November, 2006), I of course picked it up right away.  However, for some reason, it subsequently sat unopened on my DVD shelf.  I’m not sure why that is.  Maybe it’s because the thought that a longer version of Kong was rather daunting?  As I wrote above, I really loved Jackson’s remake of Kong, but even I must admit that the film (clocking in at 187 minutes) was longer than it needed to be.  Even from the comfort of my own couch, the idea of pressing play on the 201 minute version was, I suppose, not something I was in a terrible hurry to do.

But I did finally sit down to watch the extended version of King Kong this weekend, and let me say I was delighted.  Unlike the Lord of the Rings extended editions, this is not a complete re-working of the film.  The changes are actually rather minimal, mostly consisting of a couple of additional hideous encounters on Skull Island.  If you didn’t like King Kong in its theatrical form, this new version isn’t going to change your mind.  But for me, watching Kong I right away remembered every reason why I had enjoyed the film so much when I saw it in theatres.

Anyone who knows anything about this Kong remake knows that it was Peter Jackson’s dream since he was 9 years old, and that love pores off of every frame of this film.  The movie is a fantasy, a fairy-tale of the best kind, and the terrific score and the sumptuous visuals right away sucked me in to the world of 1933 New York and the story being told. 

There is no question that it is too long, and I do feel that Jackson’s love for the material blinded him to the necessity to make some tough editing choices to tighten things up.  But, to me, this version of King Kong is spectacle of the best kind.  The visuals of this film are so over-the-top astonishing as to boggle my mind.  The Brontosaurus stampede in the middle of the film would be the show-stopping action set piece of any other film, but here it is just a prelude to such sequences as the incredible extended Kong-versus-three-T-Rexes fight, Kong’s rampage in NYC, and of course the final confrontation atop the Empire State Building.  But forget the action sequences, and consider all the other visual wonders to behold in nearly every scene.  I am hard-pressed to find any shot in this film that isn’t a visual effects shot.  From the wonderful visions of old New York, to all the time spent at sea on the Venture on its ill-fated voyage, to all of the adventures on Skull Island, the film is a glorious assemblage of visual effects eye-candy.  Jackson took the team whose skills had been honed on the LOTR films and pushed them even further here, and the combination of sets, costumes, matte-paintings, miniatures, digital set extensions and CGI character work creates a full-realized world straight from Jackson’s imagination to our eyeballs.

All this talk of visual effects, and I haven’t even mentioned Kong himself!  That is how effortless and incredible the Kong visual effects are – these talented folks have brought to life an incredible creature, and it all works so successfully and feels so real that you hardly think of Kong as a visual effect!  The moment where Kong laughs at Ann, who has been demonstrating her vaudeville routines in a desperate attempt to stay alive, is a true wonder.  Just astounding work.

And the DVD is just as thorough and interesting as the LOTR ones were.  King Kong might be the most well-documented movie of all time.  Between the hours and hours of production diaries that were released on-line during the films’ production and post-production (and collected on DVD by the Peter Jackson’s Production Diaries set and disc two of the theatrical version of King Kong’s DVD release), I had thought there wasn’t anything more to know about the making of this film.  But this extended DVD contains over three hours of additional material, and it is fascinating and terrifically engaging.  The effort extended by so many people to bring this story to life is really something.

How is the extended version?  I had expected that most of the additions would be character-building stuff added on to the first part of the movie.  But that is not the case.  The film is almost unchanged until the Venture arrives at Skull Island.  At which point several sequences are added, most notably an encounter with a whole host of vicious, nasty critters in a swamp.  (Interestingly enough, the character stuff in NYC and on the Venture that I had expected would be what was added to this extended version are, instead, most of what make up the over 40 minutes of deleted scenes included on the disc.  There are a lot of interesting moments to be found, but all of which were cut for good reaspn.)  The additions that were included in the extended cut aren’t bad – they don’t really slow the film down – but nor are they essential or revelatory in any way.  For a film as long as Kong was originally, I have a feeling the theatrical version will be the one I’ll prefer to revisit in the future. 

And I am sure that I will be revisiting it.  Yes, Peter Jackson’s King Kong is an indulgent movie.  But goodness, how great would it be to see some other filmmakers create as indulgent a piece of work as this!! Jackson’s success with the LOTR films, combined with the advances of effects technology, enabled him to create exactly the film he wanted, unbound (or at least, barely bound) by technical or budgetary limitations.  The result is, for me, a true visual epic and a phenomenally enjoyable experience.  I really haven’t seen a lot of movies like this one.  And since, at home, I can pause the flick several times to go to the bathroom, my major complaint is ameliorated. 

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