DVD releases Tuesday sure don't monkey around

Commentary

March 24, 2006|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Next week should make monkeys out of movie lovers everywhere.

On Tuesday, Peter Jackson's passionate, utterly satisfying remake of King Kong gets released on DVD - cause for celebration all by itself. On that same day, however, a scaled-down DVD of the classic original King Kong will also be released. Although this edition lacks the many extras included on the film's original DVD release back in November, it's priced at $14.95, meaning it'll be available for under $10 at many retailers - perfect for budget-conscious cinephiles everywhere.

But wait, there's more. Also on Tuesday, 20th Century Fox will release a boxed set containing all five Planet of the Apes movies, packaged with a documentary on the whole Apes phenomenon. Monkey fans with money to burn can even get a more extensive Apes collection, a 14-disc extravaganza that not only includes extra stuff (including the Planet of the Apes TV series, the animated series and Tim Burton's ill-advised 2001 Apes remake), but comes in a replica ape head.

I'll leave it to anthropologists and behavioral psychologists to determine why gorilla films are such perennial crowd pleasers (heck, even lovers of 3-D movies have a weak spot for 1954's campy Gorilla at Large). Better to simply soak in the pleasures of a tiny niche - ape movies, a genre criminally ignored in most college film classes - that's been responsible for some of the cinema's most fantastic adventures.

King Kong, released in 1933, remains an undisputed classic - part Tarzan, part Beauty and the Beast, all thrilling and endlessly inventive - a perfect example of the imaginary worlds that can be conjured up by magicians armed with nothing but cameras and celluloid. This tale of the world's most chaste love affair - really, what did you expect would happen when a 35-foot gorilla falls for a 5-foot-3 blonde? - had Depression-era audiences queuing up to see it, saved its studio from bankruptcy and became one of the most iconic films in history. Just step into any New York souvenir shop and count how many plastic gorillas are perched atop small metal Empire State Buildings.

Outside of, perhaps, The Wizard of Oz, no live-action American film has infused American popular culture with as many images. The movie even left its mark on the English language; say something is Kong-sized, and even someone who has never seen the movie knows you're talking about something big.

The version of Kong being released Tuesday is glorious, taken from a pristine print that's clearer than just about every other print that's been in circulation the past 73 years. Every detail of the film's miniature sets is captured in great detail, while Kong's expressions are marvels of stop-motion animation. In fact, the film may look almost too pristine.

With every detail visible, experienced modern eyes may prove less forgiving of the tricks used to bring Kong to the screen; some of the matte shots (actors projected onto painted-glass sets) display seams that were invisible on the more muddled prints that we've been seeing. But that's a small quibble when measured against the pleasure of seeing Kong the way our grandparents first saw it.

When Jackson, hot off the billion-dollar success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, opted to remake Kong, he must have realized he was stepping onto a cinematic minefield. The film had already been remade once, in 1976, to considerable critical derision. As for Kong fans, the question became, "Why mess with a classic?" Lovers of the original 1933 film would prove Jackson's toughest critics.

And - whaddya know? - he won most of them over, with a film that displayed an obvious reverence for its ancestor, but used advances in technology and storytelling techniques to enthrall a whole new generation. Jackson said he'd been dreaming of remaking Kong since he was 9, and that combination of passion and respect was obvious throughout his film, which proved more loving tribute than commercial exploitation.

The drawback to making the new Kong available on DVD is that audiences will stop seeing it in theaters. That's not a good thing; if ever a film deserved to be shown bigger-than-life, it's Jackson's Kong. If you still haven't seen it in a theater, check out some of the local second-run houses.

But the DVD gives fans the chance to relive the movie over and over, studying and analyzing it at their convenience. You can even skip to certain parts - Kong and his newfound love slipping and sliding on the Central Park ice rink is a personal favorite - for a quick hit of movie magic at its finest.

The King Kong DVD comes in two editions, one a single disc (priced at $29.98) that includes just the movie itself and a few extended scenes, the other a two-disc set ($30.98) that includes extended visits to both New York City and Kong's Skull Island, along with a selection from Jackson's daily video production diaries.

Monkeys of a different sort - much smaller, but also much more advanced - are featured in the Planet of the Apes boxed sets, available in five-disc ($49.95) and 14-disc ($179.95) versions. The original Apes, released in the watermark year of 1968, holds up surprisingly well as both social commentary and mass entertainment. The saga of a world where evolution is turned upside down, where ape developed from man, raises intriguing questions and makes for a satisfying adventure into the "what-if?" branch of sci-fi. That, plus the ending of the original Apes remains one of the movies' most satisfying shockers.

The four Apes sequels, which eventually bring the saga full circle, never recapture the shock of the original, but do prove amusingly inventive in figuring out ways to keep the series going. Which proves an adage re- inforced by next week's DVD releases - it's hard to keep a good monkey down.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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