Guess what started making a comeback in the late 90’s? You guessed it, giant monster movies. So of course, what does Hollywood do with this knowledge? “Hey, let’s do a remake of this movie.” Now to be honest, I was kind of surprised to hear that Disney would be doing a remake of Mighty Joe Young (1949), but after thinking about it, it actually made sense for two reasons. One, it’s Disney and the original movie was definitely a more family/kid friendly movie than most other giant monster movies. Two, since King Kong had already been remade, not to mention having it’s own sequel, it made since to remake a different movie. So in 1998, a new generation of audiences was introduced to a movie about a giant gorilla with Mighty Joe Young (1998).
The plot: Ruth Young is studying gorillas in Africa with her daughter, Jill, who befriends an abnormally large baby gorilla that she calls Joe. When the group of gorillas Ruth has been observing are attacked by poachers, the lead poacher kills Joe’s mother but when he tries to capture Joe, Joe attacks him and bites off the thumb and trigger finger on the poacher’s right hand. Ruth, along with some friendly villagers, goes to try and stop the poachers but as she is rescuing Joe, the lead poacher shoots her. Jill, who snuck out of her house, finds Joe and her mom, who asks Jill to take care of Joe before she too dies. 12 years later, Gregg O’Hara, a wildlife refuge director, is leading an expedition to collect blood samples from animals when Joe, now 5 meters tall, suddenly appears in their camp and releases the leopard they had just caught. Gregg convinces his men to help him go after Joe, but while Gregg merely wants to try and collect a blood sample, the men he hired try to capture Joe, but Joe easily escapes. Gregg sends the men to get medical attention and chases after Joe on foot when Joe grabs him but before Joe can hurt him, Jill appears and gets Joe to drop Gregg, which knocks him out. Gregg wakes up in a nearby infirmary and when he sees Jill outside buying produce, he decides to follow her. Gregg finds Jill playing games with Joe and tries to convince her to let him move Joe to a preserve as it will be safer for him. After a run in with some poachers, Jill agrees and helps Gregg transport Joe to the preserve in California. When they get to the refuge, Jill is able to coax Joe into going to his new home but both Jill and Joe have a hard time adjusting to their new life. The next day, the director of the facility takes the chairman of the board to see Joe and after seeing how Joe reacts to Jill, the chairman decides to put her in charge of Joe. A month later, a news broadcast about Joe is seen by a man named Strasser, who happens to be the poacher that killed Joe’s mother and Ruth, and he heads to America to try and get his revenge. Some time later, Harry Ruben, the facility director, is leading a tour group through the facility to try and get donations when Strasser’s associate, Garth, sneaks off to Joe’s habitat and, using a poachers noisemaker, begins to agitate Joe to the point that he begins to destroy his habitat before Jill is able to calm him down. The next day, Jill tries to get the chairman to postpone a fundraising gala but he refuses. As she leaves, she runs into Strasser, who tells Jill that he runs a preserve in Botswana and wants to try and have Joe moved there as he would have more room. During the gala, Strasser and Garth sneak off to Joe’s habitat and Garth begins to use the noisemaker but when Joe sees Strasser, he remembers him and begins to get enraged. Joe ends up knocking over a tree to escape his habitat and heads into the gala after Strasser, injuring several people before his able to be tranquilized. When authorities are ordering that Joe be euthanized, Jill accepts Strasser’s offer then asks Gregg to help her get Joe out of the cage he is locked in. Loading Joe into the truck, Gregg kisses Jill goodbye before she gets in the cab along with Strasser and Garth. As they leave, two caretakers arrive after cleaning up the gala tent, and when they pull out the noisemaker and say it belonged to Garth and Strasser, Gregg realizes that they are poachers and takes off after the truck. On the highway, Jill notices Strasser’s injured right hand and, realizing who he is, she attacks him before jumping out of the truck and onto the street. Gregg pulls up to make sure Jill is ok and she tells him that Strasser is the one that killed her mother and they try to make their way after Joe. Meanwhile Joe, seeing Jill fall out of the truck, begins rocking the truck, eventually knocking it on it’s side and causing several traffic accidents as he walks down the street and manages to escape. Seeing a spotlight for an amusement park in the distance Joe thinks it is Jill signalling him, so he begins to head for it. Joe is spotted by two police helicopters but manages to evade them and continue towards the amusement park.When Joe gets to the amusement park, he heads towards the spotlight but when he doesn’t see Jill, he begins searching for her. When Jill and Gregg arrive, they are unaware that Strasser and Garth had been following them but when Strasser tries to shoot Jill, Garth pushes the gun away, causing Strasser to shoot the spotlight instead, causing a fire. While Gregg helps fight the fires and get kids off the rides, Jill continues looking for Joe but Strasser appears and points a pistol at her. Just as he is about to shoot Jill, Joe appears, grabs Strasser, and tosses him into some electrical wires, but when Strasser’s grip fails, he ends up falling into a transformer and gets electrocuted. When the police show up, Jill and Gregg try to stop them from shooting Joe. seeing a kid trapped on the burning ferris wheel, Joe climbs the wheel to save him but just as Joe grabs the kid, the fire weakens the supports and the ferris wheel falls. Joe uses his body to shield the kid from the impact, saving the boy but knocking himself unconscious. When Joe comes too, Gregg tells Jill they have to get Joe somewhere safe, she tells him that they don’t have the money to find a new home for Joe. The kid Joe rescued then gives Jill the money he has to help Joe, prompting the other onlookers to do the same. With all of the donations for Joe, Jill and Gregg are able to open a preserve in Africa, which they call the Joe Youn Preserve, and Joe is able to run safe and free.
Mighty Joe Young (1998) met with mixed reviews from the critics, currently holding a 52% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though it did fare better critically than the other giant monster movie that came out that year (and which I will not name). While everyone seemed to praise the effects used to create Joe, several critics tended to think the story was unable to really fit with the intended audiences. The movie was a box office failure as it only made over $50 million off of a $90 million budget. Some feel a large part of this was due to this being pushed back from a summer release to a holiday release, where there were several other kid oriented movies to compete with.
Me personally, I really enjoyed this movie and thought the changes made from the original really worked. Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton both did great jobs in their roles and I thought Rade Serbedzija made for an excellent villain, as he often does. I particularly loved the cameo of Terry Moore and Ray Harryhausen at the gala, especially the bit Terry says about Jill reminding her of someone since Terry played Jill Young in the original movie. The story itself did have a lot of similarities to the original movie but I thought the differences really did make it more modern. I liked the idea of having poachers be responsible for Joe being an orphan as it brought a sense of realism to the movie. The effects used to make Joe were really good and I found this gorilla to be a lot more realistic looking, giant size aside, than the gorilla suits used in the King Kong remake and it’s sequel. All in all, this was a good movie that could be considered almost as good as the original in it’s own right.
Rating: 4 out of 5