When HD DVD died, home theater enthusiasts fretted that Universal's movies released in that format might never again appear in high-def. Fortunately, the studio has reworked many of those releases for Blu-ray Disc - including (breathe a sigh of relief) Peter Jackson's 2005 take on King Kong.
Of course, the movie itself is one thing: At 3 hours and 8 minutes in its theatrical release, it's way too long, and its mix of camp, state-of-the-art effects, and ferocious action never really gels. (For another example of this unworkable concept, see Fifth Element, The.) But the movie's craft, as seen and heard on disc, is another thing: Three years after the original DVD release, the computer-generated imagery still dazzles, and the soundtrack still stuns.
I worried that Blu-ray might reveal a number of flaws in Jackson's art, but nearly every scene holds up to high-def scrutiny. All of the CGI effects - the landscapes, the giant insects - look as convincing as any I've seen. Kong himself looks pretty darned close to real; you can see in the 1080p image that the artists even took the trouble to render his individual hairs. The dinosaurs in the well-worn "Brontosaurus Stampede" scene appear a little less authentic. When they share the screen with live actors, the beasts often seem slightly washed out. However, I can't say that the Blu-ray format highlights this, because it's also visible on the DVD.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, because of its lossless nature, is technically superior to the original Dolby Digital 5.1. However, I noticed the improvement in only a few places - most notably in scenes heavy on surround sound. For example, the rocks and debris that fall from the cliffs before the brontosaurus stampede are subtly more enveloping (and frightening). Still, giving this soundtrack the DTS-HD treatment is almost like doing plastic surgery on Penélope Cruz: The original is so good that any attempt at improvement seems futile.
King Kong's densely layered surround effects are so awesome that they even came through convincingly on a $350 soundbar I had on hand. When I played the movie through the robust MartinLogan speaker system I'm currently reviewing, it seemed as if my listening-room walls would collapse. I can't think of a more entertaining action-movie soundtrack than this one.
The opening screen gives you the choice of the original theatrical release or a 12-minute-longer extended edition. What you get in the latter is a triceratops attack, an aquatic-reptile attack, and the accidental slaying of an ostrich that seems to have adopted the pharmaceutical routines of certain Major League Baseball players. If you really love CGI dinos, you'll enjoy these scenes. I, however, share the view of the friend who dropped by to check out the disc: "This would probably be a pretty good movie if they cut out all the dinosaurs."
And overall, the extras pale next to the picture and sound. Besides the commentary by Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyles, there's Universal's U-Control feature, which lets you access occasional making-of clips and original conceptual artwork in a PIP window. They're moderately interesting, but I'd have preferred a straightforward, standalone featurette. Who wants to be distracted by this stuff the first time you watch the movie? And who wants to watch the movie again just to see a few snippets of documentary footage?
It's the BD-Live features, however, that made me want to stomp, howl, bare my teeth, and take out my anger on a few T-Rexes. Not (yet) owning a BD-Live-capable player, I trudged over to a friend's house to watch the disc on his PS3. For my trouble, I got a selection of movie trailers I could've seen on any number of Web sites. I also got a feature that lets me share my favorite Kong scenes with other friends who own the Blu-ray Disc. If Universal can produce even a half-dozen customers who've actually used this feature, I'll climb the Empire State Building.
What the studio should have done is include a feature that lets you lock out everything but the brontosaurus stampede, the T-Rex fight, and the biplane battle. That might shrink King Kong down to the length of a Seinfeld episode - and make it far more entertaining in the process.
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