Mighty Joe Young (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When Mighty Joe Young first reached screens in 1949, nearly everyone recognized it as an attempt to re-create the magic and mystique of King Kong. Many of the same people were involved -- Ernest B. Schoedsack in the director's chair, Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham in Kong, Max O'Hara in Joe Young) in a leading role, a story by Merian C. Cooper, stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien -- but lightning didn't strike twice. Mighty Joe Young received a lukewarm reception when it was first released, and, years later, few would label this particular monster movie a "classic."

Disney's 1998 remake of Mighty Joe Young puts both the special effects and the storyline through an upgrade. The basic premise -- a giant gorilla is taken out of his natural habitat and brought to civilization, where he runs amok -- is the same (and, not coincidentally, the same as for King Kong), but many of the details have changed. Also, because this is a Disney release and designed to be suitable for children, it is "family friendly" (not that the original wasn't). With one necessary exception, nothing truly terrible happens to any of the characters, except (of course) the bad guys. Director Ron Underwood (Tremors) and screenwriters Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) have modernized Mighty Joe Young, bringing it out of the '40s and into the '90s, while grafting a few obvious elements of Dino DeLaurentiis' 1976 King Kong remake onto the proceedings and tacking on an ending right out of It's a Wonderful Life.

The story begins in Africa during the mid-1980s, when Jill Young (Mika Boorem) loses her mother (Linda Purl) to a gunshot fired by a ruthless big-game hunter, Strasser (Rade Sherbedgia). Strasser is a major player in the black market selling of endangered species, and he has come to Jill's part of Africa in search of new inventory. Another of his bullets finds a female gorilla, the mother of Jill's simian friend, Joe. Bonded by their mutual orphanage, the two become inseparable as they grow up together. But Joe is no ordinary gorilla -- by the time he reaches adulthood, he's 15 feet tall and weighs 2000 pounds.

The next time we meet Joe and Jill (now played by Charlize Theron), it's 12 years later. Poachers are threatening Joe's existence and Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton), an adventurous zoologist who works for the California Animal Conservatory, has arrived with an offer of sanctuary for Joe if Jill is willing to bring him to a preserve in America. Reluctantly, she agrees. Soon, Joe is acclimating to his new home, but all is not well. The Conservatory, anxious to use their new attraction as a fund-raising tool, has put Joe in the media spotlight, and Strasser is eager to capture him. Eventually and inevitably, Joe escapes from the preserve and begins romping around Hollywood.

Plot-wise, there's not much going on here. Mighty Joe Young is like a low-rent King Kong with a little more emphasis on the humanity of the primate. In fact, a great deal of effort is undertaken to make Joe a likable character (as opposed to a walking special effect, a la Godzilla) -- he is shown to be intelligent, childlike, and gentle (except when provoked). The movie contains elements of comedy and romance (between Gregg and Jill, although Joe is jealous), but the silliest aspects of the original have been eliminated.

Joe is a masterpiece of special effects wizardry, looking more real than any giant primate ever to walk across the silver screen. By combining animatronics, computer-generated images, and a man in a costume, Mighty Joe Young creates a compelling illusion. Hollywood monkeyman Rick Baker (who was responsible for, among others, the ape in the '76 King Kong and the gorillas in Gorillas in the Mist) is in top form here, and he's helped out by actors who don't have difficulty performing opposite a giant puppet or an "X" on the floor.

As the human leads, Mighty Joe Young features one established actor and one rising star. Bill Paxton, who has already been in a quintet of box office blockbusters (Aliens, True Lies, Apollo 13, Twister, Titanic) brings his affable personality to this movie in a try for number six. Opposite Paxton is blond bombshell Charlize Theron, who is best remembered for her part in Two Days in the Valley (her feature debut), and who recently appeared in Woody Allen's Celebrity. It's in large part because of Paxton and Theron's performances that we accept Joe as more than a clever construct of modern technology.

The villain, Strasser, is Rade Sherbedgia (also known as Rade Serbedzija), who played a similarly nasty character in The Saint. Actually, his role here is superfluous. There's enough going on in Mighty Joe Young that the addition of a traditional villain is unnecessary (there was none in the original). Nevertheless, since Disney wanted a clearly-defined bad guy, some actor had to be stuck with the thankless role, and it's Sherbedgia. Supporting cast members include David Paymer (Oscar nominated for Mr. Saturday Night) as the lead scientist at the Conservatory, Regina King (Jerry Maguire) as his assistant, and Peter Firth (Dr. Craig in Shadowlands) as Strasser's sidekick. Ray Harryhausen (the legendary stop-motion animator who worked with Willis O'Brien on the original Mighty Joe) and Terry Moore (who played Jill in 1949) both have cameos during a black-tie dinner sequence.

The marketing campaign surrounding Mighty Joe Young has been interesting. Originally, when the film was planned for a summer release, it was being touted as a monster movie. Wary of Godzilla, however, Disney shifted Mighty Joe Young's opening to the end of the year and, after Godzilla tanked, the Magic Kingdom began advertising their film as family-suitable fare by playing up the cute aspects. Although Joe's size makes him a monster, his disposition makes him cuddly. Despite not being daring in style or story, Mighty Joe Young is nevertheless a charming and enjoyable adventure, and a rare remake that's better than the original. It may not have the box office punch to exceed the $100 million mark, but it's good enough to entertain an audience.

Mighty Joe Young (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1998-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1