Mighty Joe Young (1998)
Directed by Ron Underwood
Cast: Charlize Theron, Bill Paxton, David Paymer, Regina King, Rade Sherbedgia, Mika Boorem, Linda Purl, Naveen Andrews.
1998 110 minutes
Rated: (for violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 28, 1998.
The 1949 original remained unseen by myself while walking into "Mighty Joe Young," the big-budget Disney remake, which was probably a good thing since I didn't have anything to compare or hold it up to.
In the entertaining prologue, which owes quite a bit to the opening of 1982's "E.T.," a primatologist (Linda Purl) in Africa is wounded and ultimately killed while desperately trying to save a gorilla and her unusually large baby, Joe, from a group of nasty poachers (are there any other kind?). Before she dies, however, her young daughter, Jill Young (Mika Boorem), promises to always take care of Joe. Twelve years later, Jill (the always-stunning Charlize Theron) is now a beautiful young woman still living in Africa and friends with Joe, who has grown to be considered "the largest-known ape in the world." For fear of the impending doom that is setting upon Joe's fate, due to inevitable poachers, Jill accepts the proposal of kind zoologist Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton) to ship Joe to Los Angeles where he will be kept in a peaceful and safe nature preserve. Before long, however, two of the hunters from Jill's childhood, including one poacher (Rade Sherbedgia) who got two of his finger's bitten off, tracks Joe down with a vendetta to settle.
For a great deal of its running time, I was rather surprised to find myself captivated by "Might Joe Young," but its small charms and underlying love story between Joe and Jill were overpowered by the action-oriented and overly-violent climax, in which Joe escapes from the poachers and sets out into the city of L.A. Maybe the problem is that the story and tone of the picture are outdated from 1949 (even though I am personally not familiar with how close this remake follows the original), because even if the film had simply remained a "quiet and sweet little film," I doubt if I still would have liked it. If it had kept its deliberate pace, the film would have come off seeming ho-hum, but with the alternate adventure ending, my reaction was "been-there-done-that." Once the penultimate sequence arrived, set at a carnival, "Mighty Joe Young" even lost its mild level of believability, since it was forced to resolve itself with Joe saving a boy from a burning ferris wheel, thus giving the city's people a reason to stand up for Joe, who really was not a bad or cruel animal, but, instead, faced with unfortunate circumstances.
Because of the picture's faults and overall air of uneventfulness, I am not giving "Mighty Joe Young" a full recommendation, but it was certainly not what would be considered a bad film. In fact, there is a lot to like, including, as previously mentioned, the charming relationship between Joe and Jill, whom I found myself actually believing to love one another. Most of the scenes leading up to the ending were well-done and pleasant enough (save for the throwaway poacher subplot), and there were even a few moments between Jill and Gregg that were intelligently written.
Another aspect that I would like to remark about is Charlize Theron, who, since making her standout debut in 1996's "2 Days in the Valley," has created one original and totally distinctive character after the other, from playing Keanu Reeves' distraught, tragic wife in last year's "The Devil's Advocate," to a multi-orgasmic supermodel in Woody Allen's "Celebrity," to playing a nice, caring pseudo-parent to an ape in this film. Theron, who is still only in her early 20's, has shown in only a handful of films that she has got a lot of range as an actress and is willing to physically and emotionally transform herself for every single role. In her scenes with Joe, and with her potential love-interest Gregg, the screen came alive with not only her beauty, but her wonderful talent and spark.
"Mighty Joe Young" is an agreeable time-waster for older kids (it's much too violent for the youngest viewers) and perhaps some adults, but in a season when children could also choose to see the marvelous "The Prince of Egypt," and adults could pick any number of far superior films, "Mighty Joe Young" simply pales in comparison. Although you could certainly do much worse, there is only one really distinctive quality about the film, and that is Charlize Theron's charismatic performance.
©1998 by Dustin Putman