Mighty Joe Young
Rating -

Children's / Action (US); 1998; Rated PG; 114 Minutes

Charlize Theron: Jill Young
Bill Paxton: Gregg O'Hara
Rade Serbedgia: Strasser
Peter Firth: Garth
David Paymer: Harry Ruben

Produced by Jim Chory, Michael Fottrel, Ted Hartley, Tom Jacobson, Gail Katz, Mark Lisson, Jackie Rubin, Gail Stutman and Ralph Winter; Directed by Ron Underwood; Screenwritten by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Rob Underwood's "Mighty Joe Young" is the family film that Disney has attempted to make for two years. They've been trying so hard on such little time to produce quality family entertainment that they've forgotten what their viewers like: stories with compassion, danger, adventure, wisdom, and sometimes, even action. It's obvious that their inside-studio productions like "Jungle 2 Jungle" and "Mr. Magoo" were a downfall for a hit film studio. It was like an illness that culminated in death earlier this year with "Meet The Deedles." Most suspected that it would be downhill from there. Others, like me, expected a recovery period for the studio.

Maybe it's finally arrived. After they overjoyed audiences with their charming "Parent Trap" remake last summer, they return full-swing to the family scene with their most joyous and playful movie of the year. "Mighty Joe Young" is built like a Hollywood monster movie, but instead of sending young children screaming from the theaters, it will overcome their small spirits and warm them with love and commiseration for the big ape they see before them. Oh no, this isn't a movie in the childish and over-modest tradition of "Flubber." This is King Kong, Jr., in many respects, with enough dazzle and appeal that it will suit whatever audience finds it, be it young or old.

I guess it's the idea of such a movie that provokes the charm. Instead of trying to accomplish everything at once, here is a movie with just the right pace and right style to stand above what the studio has done fairly recently. It doesn't try to mooch off of the old King Kong or Godzilla legends. This is a monster film, yes, but that's beside the point. It's not so much a monster movie as much as it's a story about acceptance, honesty, compassion, and the feeling we get for a special living, breathing creature when it is taken out of the habitat that best suits it. No one wants to see animals in enclosed spaces. We want to see them free in the wild, or showing up on National Geographic specials. They are just as important as we humans, so why don't we treat them as well?

The movie is a self-examination of our obsession with tourism for animals in captivity. Like "Free Willy," it involves a fascinating wild creature, as he mourns for the loss of his home and is comforted by a human who understands his pain and suffering. The kid in "Free Willy" knew how anxious and sad the Orca whale was when he was taken away from his family. Charlize Theron, who plays Jill Young, has lived around the giant ape Joe her entire life. They have a special bond with each other, and no wonder. The film opens with the loss of both of their parents, turning them into orphans. A black market hunter named Strasser (played straightforwardly by Rade Servedgia) kills Jill's mother as well as Joe's with gun shot wounds. He is that steadily impatient kind of guy who we thought we saw in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," but that just turned out to be wasted characterization. This is the real thing, here: he's a cruel, heartless, and downright viscous wildlife hunter in search of endangered species. He shows up in this neck of the woods because of his fascination with the legendary 'big' ape family. Because of his gun, he leaves one small little tike alive and alone, barely able to fend for himself. Would he let a human being help him through his life?

You know the rest of that. Oh, but a story like this isn't complete until there's an attempt later to move Joe into the city wildlife refuge, a decision that had been approved by Jill herself. Why she did such a thing to such a charming gorilla, I don't know. Once the ape is in the city and is stuck in traffic, he gets frightened by all the noise and people and runs wild through the city. There's even a subplot comprising a romantic relationship between Jill and Gregg (Bill Paxton), and Joe becomes jealous of their closeness.

Obvious plot edifice? Oh, of course, but since this is directed towards a much more subtle and inferior audience, it works well. The ape himself is made completely up of special effects, and his resemblance to the real thing is uncanny. In one great scene, when he climbs a Ferris Wheel, we get to see a close shot of his eyes in some sort of confused and scared state. The look in those eyes is so good that if Steven Spielberg saw the film twenty years ago, he would have probably reconsidered the facial structure of E.T.

How does it add up? I'd like to consider this to be one of the friendlier monster movies, where not just we special-effect buffs will be the only ones entertained. It's thematic elements involving animals in captivity and them running amok are translated to a much more gentle form, so that younger audiences will enjoy what they see. Joe is portrayed as the childlike, simple and confused animal that younger viewers have appreciated in these types of 'outcast-monster' movies, like "Free Willy" and "E.T." There's even enough to earn admiration from older, more mature audiences. It's all in Joe's eyes. Take one look at them and you want nothing more than for him to get safely back home.

1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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