Mighty Joe Young (1998)
Mighty Joe Young (1998)

Genre: Adventure Running Time: 1 hr. 54 min.

Release Date: December 25th, 1998 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Ron Underwood Actors: Charlize Theron, Bill Paxton, Rade Serbedzija, Peter Firth, David Paymer, Regina King, Robert Wisdom, Naveen Andrews, Linda Purl, Mika Boorem




s a little girl, Jill accompanies her mother, primatologist Dr. Ruth Young (Linda Purl), on an expedition for gorilla research. Jill is particularly fond of a six month-old baby called “Joe” (a very fake looking critter) who grows at an alarming rate. When merciless poachers attack the camp, led by the cruel Andrei Strasser (Rade Serbedzija), Joe’s mother is slaughtered and Ruth sustains a mortal wound.

Twelve years later, wealthy Professor Gregory O’Hara (Bill Paxton) of a Californian animal conservancy comes to Mount Pangani in search of the legend of a secret guardian behemoth. Local guide Pindi (Naveen Andrews) gathers together so-called expert trackers to accompany Gregg as he ascends the mountain to find a mythical giant gorilla. After the men capture a leopard, the monstrous 2,000 pound ape emerges from the trees to free it from its cage. In an attempt to retrieve a blood sample, Gregg is snared by the enormous Joe, only to be rescued by an adult Jill (Charlize Theron, decked out in skimpy jungle garb like a female Tarzan), who is capable of controlling the beast she grew up with. Against her advice, the curious researcher continues to pursue the humungous creature, putting him in danger of Strasser, who eventually comes looking for the valuable primate. Jill’s only choice to keep Joe safe is to relocate him to O’Hara’s California preserve, but she soon discovers that she doesn’t have as much influence as she negotiated for, and that despite the size of his habitat and her apartment, the pair are essentially still trapped in cages.

For a Disney film, the villain is unusually nasty, shown with a basement for dissecting endangered specimens and opting for the purchase of a large panda to sell its organs (since when did animal organs fetch a high price on the black market?). Like the hunter in “Bambi,” Strasser is also responsible for a tragic murder – but he’s not content just to take a life. He also wants revenge on Joe for biting off his trigger finger, and comes to Los Angeles under the guise of the owner of a 20,000 acre Botswana wildlife sanctuary, wherein he hopes to convince Jill that her simian friend will be happier living. He’s also aided by poacher henchman, Garth (Peter Firth), who regularly taunts the wild animal with a bulky chain of jangling metal.

Green-screen technology is used during the less convincing moments, but for the most part, Joe is an impressive creation, mixing CG, miniatures, and man-in-a-suit effects that don’t age as poorly as one might assume. Watching the brute interact with humans is never distracting. Riding on the successes of the “Jurassic Park” films, “Mighty Joe Young” is a project orchestrated by the demand for family-friendly adventures with oversized creatures – a Disney take on a dinosaur. Unfortunately, the attention to Jill and Gregg’s romance keeps the action to a minimum, along with the expected subplot of Joe becoming an attraction and lashing out at innocent people (like King Kong), causing a public relations nightmare with million-dollar lawsuits. But there are enough conflicts and a rather exciting conclusion (and a deservedly brutal comeuppance for the antagonist) at the Palisades Ocean Park carnival that, while conspicuously long, makes the movie an interesting experiment.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10