Director – Ron Underwood, Screenplay – Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal, Based on the 1949 film Written by Ruth Rose from a Story by Merian C. Cooper, Producers – Ted Hartley & Tom Jacobson, Photography – Don Peterman & Oliver Wood, Music – James Horner, Visual Effects Supervisor – Hoyt Yeatman, Visual Effects – DreamQuest (Supervisor – Dan Deleeleuw), Visual Effects/Animation – Industrial Light and Magic (Supervisor – Jim Mitchell), Creature Design/Animatronics – Rick Baker, Special Effects Supervisor – Allen Hall, Production Design – Michael Corenblith. Production Company – Disney/RKO Pictures/The Jacobson Co.
Bill Paxton (Dr Gerry O’Hara), Charlize Theron (Jill Young), Rade Serbedzija (Andrzej Strasser), David Paymer (Dr Henry Ruben), Regina King (Dr Cecily Banks), Peter Firth (Garth), Naveen Andrews (Pinder), Lawrence Pressman (Elliott Baker), Mika Boorem (Young Jill), Linda Purl (Dr Ruth Young), Robert Wisdom (Kwelli)
In Africa, zoologist Gerry O’Hara encounters an intelligent giant ape. Its existence is hidden from the world by a beautiful white girl Jill Young who was raised by the ape, which she calls Joe, after her mother was shot by poachers. As Joe’s existence becomes threatened anew by poachers, Jill accepts Gerry’s offer to take Joe to a zoo in California. There Joe quickly becomes the focus of much attention. However, Andrzej Strasser, the poacher that shot Jill’s mother, who poses as a respectable defender of endangered species, desires revenge against Joe for biting off his thumb. He comes, determined to reveal Joe as a wild animal so that he can have an excuse to kill him.
The original Mighty Joe Young (1949) is one of the great underrated genre classics. It reteamed many of the personnel behind King Kong (1933), including co-director Ernest B. Schoedsak, as well as the King Kong special effects man Willis O’Brien and its star Robert Armstrong. At the time it came out, it was dismissed by most as a soft-headed copy of King Kong, however Mighty Joe Young is in fact an excellent film. Some of the effects sequences – the cowboys roping of the giant ape, Mighty Joe’s rampage through an African-themed nightclub, his lifting Terry Moore above his head as she plays Beautiful Dreamer – count as some of the finest moments of stop-motion animation put on screen.
Following the enormous success of Jurassic Park (1993), big-budgeted monster movies hit on the idea of using CGI effects to breathe new life and conviction into creatures that were previously represented either by jerky stop-motion animation or men in rubber suits. The same year that saw this remake of Mighty Joe Young also saw a remake of Godzilla (1998), as well as a planned remake of King Kong by Peter Jackson that fell through and was later revived as the excellent King Kong (2005).
Without a doubt, Rick Baker’s animatronics and the CGI effects work on the remake are exceptional. As in the original, Mighty Joe lives, breathes and demonstrates a range of expressions on screen. It is just that the rest of Mighty Joe Young 1998 falls flat. For the most part, the remake adheres closely to the general plot path of the original. However, when you watch the remake trying to update and copy the original’s set-pieces, the results are monumentally underwhelming. The Jeeps chasing and trying to capture Mighty Joe have nothing over the sheer visual poetry of the cowboys trying to rope the ape in the original; Joe going wild and knocking over a party of about 40 people in a marquee is no replacement for the grandeur of the scenes of Joe wrecking a multi-storey nightclub and wrestling lions in the original.
There is an okay climax with Mighty Joe rescuing a kid trapped at the top of a burning Ferris wheel but this is pallid in comparison to the scenes from the original with Joe climbing a fireman’s ladder to rescue children from a burning orphanage. There is a tender scene with Charlize Theron singing Joe to sleep curled up in his arms but again this falls woefully flat in comparison to the original with Joe lifting her above his head on a platform while she plays piano. (There is at least one cute reference to the original – a cameo appearance from original star Terry Moore and effects assistant Ray Harryhausen as a couple in the marquee rampage scene. “She [Theron] reminds me of someone,” Moore says. “Yes, of you back when we first met,” is his reply).
You had to admit that the original Mighty Joe Young was not brilliant on plot and the updating tends to bring out many of the weaknesses in the script. Being a Disney co-production, the remake is cast as even more of a children’s film and this means the introduction of a heavy PC element. Now much is made of the ape being an endangered species, while the new character of a poacher is introduced to become the villain of the piece. There is a great deal of effort exerted in the portrayal of the African natives – the film is at pains to ensure they speak Swahili and the soundtrack frequently breaks into native African music.
Yet for all its bend-over-backwards PC-ness, Mighty Joe Young 1998 draws badly on racial caricatures elsewhere. For example, the villains are all caricatured by their race – the friendly but opportunistically double-dealing Indian, the Russian lead villain, the nasty South African sidekick. The film is written as caricature – authority figures are typecast as tightasses and self-interested egoists and are there for no other reason than to be the butt of easy jokes, be dumped into food or upstaged by the ape.
In all, Mighty Joe Young 1998 is a badly written and badly played film. Director Ron Underwood has made at least one film – Tremors (1990) – that has shown him as having a good grasp of genre filmmaking. However, the deftness of hand that Underwood displayed on Tremors has deserted him altogether with Mighty Joe Young. The extended climax with Mighty Joe rampaging throughout L.A. falls flat even as a traditional monster amok climax.
The intent to make Mighty Joe Young a G-rated film this time out has the scenes played as comic relief – Joe poking his head into a theatre ticket office, sitting on the sports car of a guy (again more of the film’s caricatured simplicity – it is the guy getting his just desserts as he is earlier caricatured as impatient and angry with the traffic jam caused by Joe’s rampage), Joe beating his chest atop Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, children cheering him on. The ending where the children come forward to donate money to create a park to house Joe is unbelievably corny.
The script’s one point of interest over the original is its playing up to a minor extent the Jill Young character as a jungle girl who has spent twenty years in the wild with only the ape as company. The script writes a couple of scenes dealing with her resultant culture shock – reacting in disbelief to commercials for spray-on hair, finding the apartment she is provided with confining, her reaction to her going on her first date.
Alas, Charlize Theron fails to convince here as someone who has spent the last twenty years in the jungle and is emerging into civilisation for the first time. Instead, she emerges from the jungle as someone with a modern American accent and fully conversant with modern colloquialism, your average girl next door type in fact, not some sort of Sheena-come-Dian Fossey.
Director Ron Underwood is probably best known for the commercial hit of City Slickers (1995). Within the genre, he also made the amiable afterlife comedy Heart and Souls (1993) and went onto the disaster-laden Eddie Murphy science-fiction comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002). After the flops of both Mighty Joe Young and Pluto Nash, Underwood retreated to tv, making fodder like Santa Baby (2006), The Year Without a Santa Claus (2006), Santa Baby 2: Christmas Maybe (2009) and episodes of various tv series.
(Nominee for Best Makeup Effects at this site’s Best of 1998 Awards).