Mighty Joe Young
directed by Ron Underwood
(Walt Disney/Buena Vista, 1998)

Sixteen years after he'd stunned the world with King Kong, Merian C. Cooper returned to the scene of the primates with Mighty Joe Young, a very different story about a very different ape with much improved special effects.

Kong returned in the mid-'70s, with a high-powered cast and an even bigger building to climb. Now Joe's back, too, with special effects that blow away all his predecessors and a politically correct plot drawn from the pages of '90s newspapers.

Gone is the African plantation where Joe was raised as a pet by plantation owner's daughter Jill Young (Terry Moore). The new Joe is a wild ape, recipient of a recessive gene for gigantism that has made him a freak of nature: a one-ton gorilla the size of three men who inhabits a sacred mountain in Africa.

Gone, too, is Hollywood promoter Max O'Hara (Robert Armstrong), who wants to make Joe a night club star. In his place we have Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton), a naturalist who accidentally comes across Joe and decides he needs to be moved to a California conservancy for his own protection.

But Joe already has a protector, the new and improved Jill Young (Charlize Theron), daughter of a primatologist who was killed the same night poachers killed Joe's mother. Jill's mother's dying wish was that Jill protect Joe.

The promise complicates what would otherwise be a simple plot: Boy (Gregg) goes gaga over girl (Jill), but girl is already gaga over gorilla (Joe). Further complicating the plot are a poacher (Rade Serbedzija), who figures Joe is worth a fortune to him, and a conservancy board that figures Joe is worth a fortune to their cause.

In the end, Joe has no choice but to go on a rampage and ruin half of downtown Hollywood, though most of the damage is done by his helicopter-riding pursuers.

Involved as that all sounds, it still might have worked had it not been for the non-acting duel between Paxton and Theron. Neither is convincing, though Paxton is clearly the weaker of the two, monotoning his lines as if he were reading out of the Greenpeace handbook.

The musical score is better than the original's, at least where director Ron Underwood uses some real African music to set his scenes. And the special effects blow away not only those of the original -- which already were creaky by the late '50s when I first saw it -- but those of the King Kong and Godzilla remakes as well.

But therein lies the problem: Master animator Ray Harryhausen, who worked on the original Mighty Joe Young, once said that special effects have to be believable, but not so believable that they take away the fantasy aspect of the film.

Joe, by being more believable than Theron, Paxton or the plot, cuts off his own film at the knees. What's left isn't bad, but it isn't good, either -- proof once again that Hollywood should let sleeping monsters lie.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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