Mighty Joe Young
1998, PG, 114 min. Directed by Ron Underwood. Starring Rade Serbedzija, Nareen Andrews, Peter Firth, Regina King, David Paymer, Charlize Theron, Bill Paxton.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 25, 1998
Like Gus Van Sant's recent remake of Psycho, this Disney retread of the classic 1949 fantasy film raises the question: Why? Obviously, recent advances in the field of special effects make for a more realistic depiction of the titular giant ape, but the film loses something in the updating. Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen's lovingly rendered stop-motion Joe Young has been replaced by Rick Baker's too-realistic animatronics and the computer wizardry of Industrial Light & Magic, leaving the original's sense of wonder in the dirt. It looks like a million bucks, sure, but this Joe Young, expressive though he may be, is a far cry from the original's campy fun. Paxton plays Gregg O'Hara, a California zoologist scouring darkest Africa hoping to cash in on reports of a mythical giant ape. What he finds is Theron's Jill Young, a vivacious, fiercely protective naturalist who's busy fighting off the poachers who'd rather have Mighty Joe Young sold off in pieces to the highest bidder. Fifteen-feet-tall and possessed of childlike facial expressions (everyone in the film seems to rely on an ongoing childlike naïveté from time to time), giant Joe Young is a genetic anomaly, a silverback gorilla with above-average intelligence. Both Joe and Jill are orphans -- their mother was killed by the unctuous Strasser 12 years earlier. When Strasser returns to capture the now-fully-grown Joe, Gregg convinces Jill that the only safe haven for her oversized friend is back in California in a wildlife preserve especially manufactured to contain the hulking ape. Once there, both Joe and Jill begin to brood amidst the stifling constraints of the modern world. It's not long before Joe Young earns the Mighty in his name and breaks free, running amok in downtown San Diego and causing all manner of havoc while Gregg, Jill, and Strasser race against the clock. Director Underwood has a sure hand with the action sequences here, but not much else. Shots of a CGI Joe loping through the veldt are breathtaking, but they still look computer-generated. Academy Award winner Rick Baker's animatronics are another matter. The cable-controlled Joe is as expressive as a real gorilla, but all the special effects in the world can't save Mighty Joe Young from screenwriter Ruth Rose's leaden dialogue and an ending so hamhanded that it appears to have been lifted part and parcel from It's a Wonderful Life. Paxton, as always, is thoroughly engaging, and Theron is coming into her own as an actress, but the bottom line here is that the film lacks the original's goofy good humor. Less effects and more humanity are in order before this remake can even get within spitting distance of the original.