starring Charlize Theron, Bill Paxton, David Paymer, Rade Serbedzija
screenplay by Lawrence M. Konner & Mark Rosenthal, based on the 1949 screenplay by Ruth Rose
directed by Ron Underwood
by Bill Chambers The most absurd remake of 1998? It's a toss-up between Gus Van Sant's Psycho and Mighty Joe Young, the new Disney picture based on the old RKO one. I knew I was in trouble when a polished, computer-generated version of that famous radio-tower logo appeared before the opening credits; like Psycho, this is less a remake than a simulation of one. There was no great demand for another giant ape movie--make that ape movie, period. (Witness the quick deaths of Buddy, Born To Be Wild, and Congo.) And while this latest entry in an inexplicably prolific genre is an inoffensive time-waster, it's also an assembly-line product through and through, lacking the charm and idiosyncratic plotting of vintage jungle pulp.
As a young girl growing up in the wilds of Africa, Charlize Theron's Jill Young bonded with an orphaned gorilla after both of them lost their mother to poachers. That baby gorilla (nicknamed Joe) grew to immense proportions, and adult Jill basically bides her time tending to his (Platonic) needs while protecting him from hunters. Enter conservationist Gregg (Bill Paxton), who convinces Jill to move with Joe to California, where they can better protect him in a controlled environment. Joe is restless at first; no sooner does he finally settle into the new place than do those nasty poachers from the past resurface in L.A., plotting Joe's demise. Suffice it to say, the movie could have been called "Joe: Ape In The City."
Theron (so good in The Devil's Advocate) and Paxton (so good in A Simple Plan, which you should go see instead of this) are fine actors but can't transcend the paint-by-numbers script courtesy the über-hack screenwriters of Superman IV and Mercury Rising. Their plot borrows more from Steven Spielberg's The Lost World than from the 1947 original, a fairly gonzo King Kong riff that had Joe becoming a nightclub act and flirting with alcoholism. The storytelling becomes especially lazy, if spiritually true to the genre, during the final third, as the computer-generated T-Rex--er, ape--wreaks havoc on the busy streets for an encore. Jill shouts, "Look, Joe's headed for the movie theatre," and next thing you know, Joe's scaling Mann's Chinese Theater. A moment later, Jill shouts again something along the lines of, "Look, Joe's headed for an amusement park!" And what do you know, there's Joe at the Pallisades carnival, scaring the bejesus out of innocent thrillseekers. In the original, Joe redeemed himself by saving children from a burning orphanage, changed here to a Ferris wheel that's gone up in flames. I think the idea is that orphanages are archaic while a fair is timeless, but few things are as archaic to start with as the giant monkey.
The seams of last-minute edits to Mighty Joe Young show, with disconnected scenes patched together using quick dissolves. The movie sure feels uneven, regardless: exposition is compacted while the mayhem is protracted, and a little of Joe smashing cars goes a long, long way. Journeyman director Ron Underwood was perhaps not the right man for the job, despite having made those outdoorsy sleepers Tremors and City Slickers. Something about his sensibility dries out the lush Hawaiian landscapes (filling in for Africa) so that they look as arid as his usual Southwest turf. Contrary to popular belief, capturing the beauty of nature is not simply a matter of aiming the camera at a pretty vista.
I did enjoy some sequences, especially the irreverent demolition of a black-tie dinner and the implausible yet touching prologue. (As a toddler, Joe reminds us of E.T., very very much on purpose.) Rick Baker's make-up effects and puppetry are outstanding, the real star of the show, though for all its technically flawless mix of animatronics and CGI, the creature remains too grumpy and homicidal to love. (His facial expressions are variations on a scowl.) To be fair, I saw Mighty Joe Young in a cinema packed with wailing children--it's a wonder I was able to decipher any of the dialogue. This is certainly not a film for tykes: the intensity of the fight scenes is potentially frightening, and any time Joe's not on camera might as well be dead air. (That said, older boys are likely to be dazzled by Theron's colourful array of tank tops.) I suspect that Mighty Joe Young is passable entertainment for a family outing, but they don't make garbage like they used to. Originally published: December 25, 1998.