Mighty Joe Young (1998) – Ron Underwood

There are a few reasons to watch the Disney update of the RKO classic Mighty Joe Young, which is the next title in DK Canada’s Monsters in the Movies by director John Landis. First it features the wonderful Charlize Theron, second, the always awesome Bill Paxton, third, the amazing animatronic and effects work of the amazing Rick Baker, and finally a cameo by Ray Harryhausen who was in charge of the effects in the original film.

Beyond that, the film feels decidedly unstable and off-balance. Underwood who had done a creature feature (I love TREMORS!) and a romantic comedy (Heart and Souls) and the iconic City Slickers stepped into the director’s chair, and though he’s done some prolific television work since, this one is probably his worst effort.

The film can’t seem to find it’s tone. It’s lit, shot and its supporting cast is filled out as if it is a studio shot sit-com, the images are flat and the film teeters wildly from broad comedy to emotional moments – honestly it’s like Theron is in a completely different film, even when she’s forced to spout off some horrific piece of dialogue.

The story follows a giant ape, Joe (stunningly brought to life by Baker’s work) and his friend, Jill (Theron) who’s mother was a Dian Fosey type, and was murdered by poachers led by the villainous Strasser (Rade Serbedzijia – another great actor who is out of place in this film).

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When Bill Paxton’s Gregg, an animal conservationist and zoologist arrives on the scene, he falls for Jill (can you blame him) and wants to take Joe back to California. Jill agrees as she thinks it will keep both Joe and her safe from hunters.

But nothing is what they expect, and once the zoo’s PR machine announces Joe’s arrival, Strasser comes back seeking revenge.

This could have been a tense, tightly-paced, engaging family creature thriller. What we get is a film that stumbles drunkenly from moronic moments meant to be funny to some possible solid sequences. There was a nice reveal that happened towards the end of the film that almost caught me out, and rather impressed me (it was completely out of place in this movie, but made perfect sense if the film had been better crafted).

Still, Baker’s work is something to see. He remains one of the most prolific effects artists working in the field and Joe is a wonderful creation. He gets more emotion out of this character than some of the actors in this film.

Mighty Joe Young marks the last film in the Monstrous Apes chapter for me to review, next time I delve into all new creatures as I explore more of DK Books’ Monsters in the Movies.

Pick one up for yourself and find something truly monstrous to watch tonight!

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