The 'Mighty' has fallen

December 25, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

I'm at a loss to decide what is most distressing about "Mighty Joe Young," the saga of a 2,000-pound gorilla and his unhappy encounter with the Hollywood lifestyle. So I'll let you decide. Could the big problem be:

A) The filmmakers took a B-movie released almost 50 years ago, a film whose strengths were slight but endearing, and made it seem like a masterpiece in comparison with the "Mighty Joe Young" of 1998, whose message (men with guns -- bad!) is slapped on with a trowel and whose emotions are as genuine as a 22-foot-tall monkey.

B) The new film believes, with all its heart, that the good guy is a conservationist who takes Joe -- for his own good, of course -- out of Africa and dumps him in an L.A. nature conservancy. It's the only way, he insists, to ensure the big guy's survival. (Isn't Disney doing much the same thing with a wild animal park down in Florida? What a coincidence!)

C) Disney is creatively bankrupt and bereft of ingenuity -- especially in its live-action films.

In its original incarnation, "Mighty Joe Young" was simply "King Kong" lite, the story of a big monkey with a heart of gold. Like

Kong, he was taken from his home and brought to the big city to be exploited. Like Kong, the adventure ends badly. But unlike Kong, everyone gets to go home happy.

Same basic story here: Joe grows up alongside a young woman (Charlize Theron, who will drop this from her resume within a few years), and the two become inseparable. Then civilization comes calling in the form of a conservationist (Bill Paxton) who's heard rumors about the big guy. He convinces her to buy Joe a ticket to California, but naturally, Joe doesn't fit in.

At least the original film showcased the genius of stop-motion animator Willis O'Brien and his newfound assistant, Ray Harryhausen (who would later become the force behind such classic fantasy films as "Jason and the Argonauts"). Fifty years later, the art of filmmaking has advanced so far that Joe this go-round is a guy in a gorilla suit!

Oh, well. "Mighty Joe Young" does show off some fine work by makeup maestro Rick Baker, and there are some gorgeous computer-assisted scenes of Joe running through the African plains. There's also a winking cameo from Harryhausen and Terry Moore, who played the original Joe's girlfriend.

And kids might like it as long as their standards aren't high.

'Mighty Joe Young'

Starring Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton

Directed by Ron Underwood

Released by Disney

Rated PG (animal violence)

Running time 114 minutes

Sun score *

Pub Date: 12/25/98

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