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DVD Review: King Kongs

By Glenn Abel

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photo When Merian C. Cooper unleashed his "King Kong" in 1933, he went to great lengths to safeguard the secrets behind its mind-bending special effects.

Peter Jackson, ringmaster of the new century's "Kong," had other ideas. "Why don't we invite people in" as the movie is being made, the director mused last year. And so an ambitious series of behind-the-scenes shorts went up on the movie's Web site, more or less in real time.

"It was an experiment," Jackson says. "It's not a calculated piece of publicity. It's actually just the filmmakers connecting with the fans."

The 54 shorts no longer exist on KongIsKing.net -- they have been replaced by a similar postproduction series. The original series migrated to DVD the day before the new "Kong" opened, giving viewers the unusual option of watching a hit film's DVD extras just as it premieres.

"King Kong: Peter Jackson's Production Diaries" has been released by Universal in a double-disc set (retail $39.98). The spiffy box, sort of an explorer's trunk, also contains four small art prints and a 52-page booklet.

Jackson plays host throughout, taking time to explain what's happening on the "Kong" set in New Zealand even when he's so tired he's stumbling. "We didn't try to hide anything," a seriously slimmed-down Jackson says in the intro. "We didn't censor ourselves."

Some of the actors love hamming it up for the fans, such as Jack Black and Andy Serkis, who modeled Kong's movements. "I can't believe they get to see me in costume and makeup," Black says early on. "Isn't that verboten?" Leading lady Naomi Watts seems dubious but comes around in the series' second half.

The shorts aren't all that different from most well-made production featurettes, but few projects have looked into this many corners of the filmmaking process or spent 312 hours doing it. Everyone from Jackson to the woman who brews coffee takes a turn explaining what they do and how they feel about it. Some of the segments are full of detail -- say, the piece on how movie cameras work. Others are just goofy -- the visit with the guy who crafts fake animal poop.

One remarkable segment shows Watts in front of a greenscreen, shooting a scene in which she is carried around in Kong's hand. Serkis, whose movements were tracked by computer in order to animate Kong, stands off camera on a crane, relating to Watts as Kong would, even though he's not wearing a mask. "I feel completely transported when I look into his face," the actress says, explaining why she wanted Serkis there.

The giant ape stayed under wraps when the shorts were on the Web, but he makes a dramatic appearance on the DVD. "The Making of a Shot: The T-Rex Fight" spends 15 minutes on what it took to create the complex scene, and then rolls the frantic final product.

The diaries were written and directed by Michael Pellerin, who did the "Lord of the Rings" featurettes.

Buy "King Kong: Peter Jackson's Production Diaries" at 25% off.

photo Ray Harryhausen never forgot the first time he saw the original "King Kong." "I haven't been the same since," the special effects wizard of "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Mysterious Island" says. "That shows how a film can change a whole life sometimes."

Harryhausen figures he has watched the 1933 classic something like 175 times -- "You see something different in it every time you run it." For his 176th screening, DVD viewers are invited to listen in.

On Warner's DVD debut of "King Kong," Harryhausen and younger colleague Ken Ralston ("The Polar Express") spin a relaxed and often delightful commentary. At times they're experts dissecting the groundbreaking effects work; then they just seem like youngsters awed by the giant ape's sound and fury.

The film has long topped lists of most-wanted DVD titles, and now Warner rewards fans with a trio of products: There's a tin-cased "Collector's Edition" ($39.98); the "King Kong Collection," which throws in the lesser follow-ups "Son of Kong" and "Mighty Joe Young" ($39.98); and a no-frills edition with the same two "King Kong" discs found on the other sets ($26.98).

The restored "King Kong" contains the 412 minutes that were censored as too risque or violent -- scenes like the one in which Kong tears away some of Fay Wray's clothes. Or his size-98 foot doing the monster mash on an islander.

The main nitrate print used for the restoration and transfer came from Britain, where "Kong" apparently roamed unmolested. The black-and-white images look sensational coming from a film that's almost 75 years old. The mono sound delivers the roars, screams and pounding drums without age-related distortion. An overture begins the film.

The "Kong" DVD, with its generous suite of bonus features, completes a circle of sorts -- Criterion's laserdisc of 1985 was one of the first videos to include commentary and onscreen extras.

Like many hard-core fans, Jackson considers the legendary lost "spider pit" sequence the missing link in the "Kong" tale. Unlike other fans, he was in the position to resurrect it -- which the director did as a side project, "purely for fun," as he started production on the new "Kong."

The DVD's Disc 2 documentary shows how an "obsessed" Jackson and his effects crew dedicated themselves to using the techniques employed by "Kong" effects chief Willis O'Brien and his collaborators in the 1930s: stop-motion animation, back projection, live action inserts, matte paintings, puppets, miniatures and other vintage forms of cine-magic.

Using the original shooting script, a few surviving models and a lot of guesswork, Jackson and Co. reshot the scene in which "Kong" expedition sailors come to a grisly end in a canyon guarded by a giant spider, lizard and crab. The filmmakers built models of the monsters and made them come to life via old-school stop motion. As a tribute, Wray's screams were distorted to create the roar of one of the beasts. Craftsmen even played the sailors.

"You instantly appreciate what O'Brien and those guys were doing," says one of Jackson's CG cowboys. "It tested us. And if it tested us, it makes what was done in 1932 that much more heroic."

A DVD extra intercuts the cleverly "aged" footage with the actual "Kong" scenes. It fits right in.

The docu, "RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World," also sidetracks for a 15-minute revival of O'Brien's never-made dinosaur film "Creation." ("Kong" creator and RKO exec Cooper hated "Creation," co-opting its creatures for his killer-ape project, then known as "The Beast.")

Only four minutes of "Creation" test footage survives, so the presentation is made with drawings and narration from the script. Interesting, but the evidence strongly suggests the world was better off in Kong's giant hands. "Without 'Creation,' 'King Kong' would be a lot different," Harryhausen says.

"RKO Production 601" runs 2 1/2 hours, touching on myriad aspects of the "Kong" phenomenon. Particular attention is paid to the revolutionary work of composer Max Steiner and sound designer Murray Spivack. The "secret society" of modern visual effects artists inspired by O'Brien and "Kong" line up to pay tribute.

Another docu profiles the war hero Cooper and his director-partner, Ernest Schoedsack (HR 11/18). A 17-minute collection of trailers surveys Cooper's career as a producer and partner to John Ford.

Buy "King Kong" at 33% off.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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