Mighty Joe Young Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

I promised to take care of Joe. I'm doing whatever I can to stop those poachers.
Mighty Joe Young

Originally slated for release this past summer, "Mighty Joe Young" was marketed as yet another monster/disaster movie and, appropriately enough, the trailer emphasized the special effects and pyrotechnics. However, the studio execs at Walt Disney decided to give "Godzilla" a wide berth, and ended up rescheduling "Mighty Joe Young" for the holiday season. With the firm belief that moviegoers got enough mayhem and disaster this past summer, the positioning of "Mighty Joe Young" was changed. Instead of being trumpeted as a monster/disaster movie, the trailers now emphasize the cute and family-friendly aspects of the film, especially the relationships that the giant gorilla has with the other characters. Having seen "Mighty Joe Young", it seems the family-friendly positioning hits closer to the mark.

Poor baby lost his mother tonight. He needs someone to protect him. Will you protect him?
Charlize Theron

"Mighty Joe Young" follows essentially the same plot as its namesake from 1949 (which suffered audience ennui due to its numerous similarities to "King Kong"), in which a giant gorilla is taken out of the jungle and winds up creating havoc in a large city. This time around, Joe is a gorilla with a genetic anomaly that makes him grow faster and larger than any of his simian colleagues. He shares a special friendship with Jill Young (Mika Boorem), the daughter of Dr. Ruth Young (Linda Purl), who is studying Joe and his family in their natural habitat. However, tragedy strikes one night when Strasser (Rade Sherbedgia of "The Saint"), a cruel animal poacher, coldly shoots both Joe's mother and Ruth before scurrying away into the night. Before dying, Ruth asks her daughter to make a promise to protect Joe. With both their mothers gone, Jill and Joe become inseparable.

How did you keep him a secret for so long?
By keeping people like you off the mountain!
Bill Paxton

Twelve years later, both Jill (now played by Charlize Theron of "The Devil's Advocate") and Joe have grown up. Joe, having reached adulthood, is over fifteen feet tall and weighs over 2000 pounds, making it very difficult for Jill to keep him hidden from poachers. In rides Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton of "A Simple Plan" and "Titanic"), a maverick zoologist who has heard of a mythical giant gorilla in mountains and has come to see for himself if the stories are true. To his delight and almost to his detriment, he discovers Joe and convinces Jill that the California Animal Conservatory would be the safest place for her furry friend. With the threat of poachers closing in around Joe, Jill hesitantly goes along with Gregg's offer.

How long do you think he can stay free? The next people to arrive will be coming to hunt him down.

Not long after arriving in Los Angeles, Jill begins to have second thoughts about Joe's new home. In addition to Joe having difficulty adapting to his new surroundings, the head of the Conservatory (veteran character actor David Paymer) is eager to use Joe to raise funds and capture the media spotlight, a move that Jill vehemently protests. Meanwhile, Strasser, eager to get his hands on Joe, books the first plane to Los Angeles. Before you can say 'I told you so', Joe ends up breaking free from captivity and starts trashing downtown L.A.

After we sell him off piece by piece, who knows how much we'll make!

The star of "Mighty Joe Young" is Joe himself, a product of computer animation, animatronics, and prosthetics that is good enough to challenge the wizardry seen in "The Lost World" and "Godzilla". And unlike the creatures seen in other special effects-laden productions, Rick Baker (who created artificial apes for "Gorillas in the Mist") has created a very sympathetic and emotive character that the audience can immediately latch onto. This fine 'performance' is also supported by the fine efforts of Theron and Paxton, whose excellent performances make it very easy to believe that Joe is 'real'. Theron's performance is especially noteworthy, displaying the range necessary for a character whose feelings of displacement are not unlike those of her 'adopted sibling'. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Sherbedgia, whose one-note performance as the film's villain plays second banana to everything else.

Don't move!
I'm not moving, but my bowels are!

True, the story is predictable, and many aspects of "Mighty Joe Young" lend themselves to "King Kong". However, director Ron Underwood ("Tremors") has rolled up the action, sentiment, and romance into a fun package that the entire family can enjoy. The film's climax, which takes place in an amusement park, is so deftly executed, effectively pushing all the right buttons and exemplifying the intoxicating mix that Underwood has thrown together-- a mix that even the most jaded moviegoer can't resist. So if you're looking for a family feature that will appeal for the whole family, you can't go wrong with "Mighty Joe Young".

Hey! Can you get him to put me down?
Joe... drop him!

Images courtesy of Walt Disney Films. All rights reserved.

Go Back to Movie Review Archive Index