Mighty Joe Young
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Charlize Theron (Jill Young), Bill Paxton (Gregg O'Hara), Rade Serbedzija (Strasser), Peter Firth (Garth), David Paymer (Harry Ruben), Regina King (Cecily Banks), Robert Wisdom (Kweli), Naveen Andrews (Pindi), Lawrence Pressman (Dr. Baker), Linda Purl (Dr. Ruth Young)
If "Mighty Joe Young" isn't particularly good, it isn't particularly bad, either. A lightweight rampaging monster feature from Disney Pictures, it has an environmentally appreciative tone and a lot of touchy-feely moments between a 15-foot, 2,000-pound gorilla and Charlize Theron. The premise sounds much more interesting than it actually is. In fact, the movie is so pre-packaged and risk-free that it never puts itself in danger of upsetting anyone, but at the same time, it never manages to get its wheels really turning.
The premise of the film is that Joe, the lovable gorilla of the title who happens to have a bad case of gigantism, has grown up in the secluded African wilderness with a woman named Jill Young (Charlize Theron). Jill was the daughter of a Jane Goodall-type anthropologist (Linda Purl) who was killed by poachers while trying to protect the gorillas she was studying. That same night, Joe's mother is also killed by the poachers, and Jill makes a promise to her dying mother that she will take care of the young, orphaned ape.
Flash-forward 12 years, and Jill is still living in Africa, keeping Joe a secret on a remote, forested mountain. Despite living most of her life in the jungle with a huge ape, Jill still has perfect hair, perfect make-up, blemish-free skin, and a provocative array of slinky J. Crew wrap skirts and body-clinging tanktops--she gives hope to every city woman who is afraid to try camping. Theron looks good all throughout the picture, almost too good--you can never quite accept her character as a tough-minded, outdoor survivor. She looks especially silly when she bellies up face-to-face with some tough-looking hunters who dared to leave traps in her forest.
The local natives know of Joe only as a legend, until an enterprising American zoologist, Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton), comes calling. Now, don't get me wrong: Gregg has only the best interests of wildlife at heart. He is an animal conservationist, and once he finds Jill and Joe, he realizes the big primate will not last long in the wilderness once poachers find out about him.
So, Jill agrees to let Gregg transport Joe back to a California conservatory, run by Harry Ruben (David Paymer), a man who, as Jill points out, has probably never spent a night outside in his life (not that she looks like she ever has, either). All if fine and dandy until Strasser (Rade Serbedzija), the same poacher who killed Joe and Jill's mothers, sees Joe on CNN and decides to take revenge on the big monkey, who bit off two of his fingers in self-defense 12 years earlier.
By the time all is said and done, Joe is rampaging around Hollywood Boulevard--not attacking or destroying anything on purpose, mind you--looking for Jill. Being the good, publicity-minded gorilla that he is, Joe forgoes climbing boring skyscrapers like his cousin King Kong; instead, he asserts his apehood by scaling Mann's Chinese Theater and perching in the "O" of the Hollywood sign.
"Mighty Joe Young" is a remake of a 1949 movie, a sort of poor man's "King Kong" that still featured impressive stop-motion animation from Ray Harryhausen, the master of that now-obsolete art. I assume there is little resemblance between the original and the 1998 version--there certainly wasn't as much environmentally conscious sermonizing back in the late '40s.
This new version was directed by Ron Underwood, who showed something of a knack for combining comedy and action in "Tremors" (1990) and "City Slickers" (1991). Unfortunately, he doesn't bring those sensibilities to "Mighty Joe Young," which has only a handful of workable laughs. The rest of it is either out-and-out action sequences (which are notably well choreographed) or teary-eyed scenes between the ape and his sexy surrogate mother.
Technically, the film is extremely well done. Joe is a combination of men in gorilla costumes, animatronics designed by Rick Baker ("Men In Black"), and flawless computer animation. Luckily, whether it's men in costume, puppets, or digital imagery, Joe never looks like anything other than flesh, fur, and blood, even when filmed in dizzying camera swirls while rumbling across the African grassland. There is not a scene in the film where he is anything less than a convincing character, and I'd be lying if I said some of those sorrowful looks he gives (especially when he's locked up in a steel cage) weren't affecting. You might feel silly for letting a two-ton gorilla make you misty-eyed, but it's all in the fun. "Mighty Joe Young" is a far cry from a moving masterpiece, but it's still decent family entertainment that's not too mushy and not too violent.
©1999 James Kendrick