Rated PG - Running time: 1:54 - Released 12/25/98

It is a testament to the popularity of the late writer/director Merian C. Cooper's stories about oversized gorillas that so many have been made (and remade) into feature films. He and screenwriter Ruth Rose wrote the story for King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949), and adapted his work for the remake of King Kong (1976). Now, with the help of Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, Mighty Joe Young has also been resurrected. This time produced by Disney studios, the movie breaks the long streak of abysmal live-action releases from that company. Though not a masterpiece, Ron Underwood's retooling of Mighty Joe Young is good enough to provide a nice complement to the studio's recent major cartoon, A Bug's Life.

Joe Young is a very large gorilla. He is given that name by Dr. Ruth Young (Linda Purl), a scientist who is studying him in Africa. But when Dr. Ruth and Joe's gorilla mother are killed by a group of poachers, Joe is left with Ruth's daughter Jill (first played by Mika Boorem), who promises her mother that she will look out for him. Interestingly, as the mother lies dying, she is not in the least concerned with the welfare of her young daughter, alone in the jungle with apparently no father, but of the gorilla they have grown to love.

Twelve years later, Joe and Jill (now portrayed by Charlize Theron) have established a loving bond, and he has grown to the size of a small house. But he is still in danger of being killed by profiteers, and Jill keeps Joe in hiding as her well-guarded secret. She tries to hide him from Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton), a zoologist who comes looking for the legendary ape, hoping to take him to his animal preserve in Los Angeles. When another poacher attack is narrowly avoided, Gregg convinces Jill that Joe would be safer in L.A., but she only agrees under the stipulation that she be Joe's primary caretaker.

During the move Joe is spotted by Strasser (Rade Serbedzija), the poacher who killed his and Jill's mother 12 years ago. Strasser has sworn a vendetta against the animal who bit off his thumb and forefinger, so he begins a plot to heist the gargantuan beast and sell his body parts for profit. Soon there is an accident, and Joe is loose and frightened on the streets of L.A., picking up cars and panicking the citizens.

This film is full of unlikely events and logical discrepancies (like why Strasser would want to kill Joe; he would be worth much more alive), but Theron and Paxton form a bond that is sweet and satisfying. Paxton does a much better job here than his monotonous Texas drawl in Titanic and Twister; here he is a bit more human, like his Fred Haise in Apollo 13. Theron, who actually was born in South Africa, is very believable here, as she was last year in The Devil's Advocate. And Serbedzija is the classic Disney villain: foreign, soulless, and physically disfigured.

The gorilla effects, credited to a vast number of people and companies (primarily DreamQuest Images), are quite well done — although Joe looks rather fake in his few scenes as a baby, the larger version is given convincing life, with movements and expressions that appear very natural, almost human. There is of course some corny humor thrown in to make the kiddies laugh out loud, but not enough to really annoy us stuffy logicians.

Mighty Joe Young has good laughs, good romance, and good effects, without excessive violence. If Mr. Cooper is looking down on Hollywood, he must be pleased that his big gorillas continue to live on. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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