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DVD Review: Mighty Joe Young (1949)

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Mighty Joe Young is the King Kong sequel Son of Kong should have been. Actually, it’s not a sequel at all, but given the cast, directors, and writers, it should be. The final oversized ape epic to come from the team of Schoedsack, Cooper, and O’Brien, Young is just a small notch below the original Kong.

With over a decade to hone their skills, it’s the special effects that mesmerize. Though credit is given to O’Brien (he did some animation), it’s a young Ray Harryhausen taking on his first major special effects role, and it was already obvious how talented he was. It’s a remarkable upgrade from the films from the 30s, and exquisite detail in each set piece is just stunning.

In fact, the sequence where Joe Young snaps and destroys a nightclub should be considered one of the premiere special effects sequences ever created. Yes, right up there with the Death Star trench run in Star Wars or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. That’s only one sequence of pure special effects bliss though, and some shots were so good, they were recycled for later films (Valley of Gwangi borrowed the roping scene included here). The reactions on Joe’s face are also remarkable, showcasing a wide range of believable expressions with every move he makes.

Unfortunately, that’s only one character in the story. Robert Armstrong takes on a role similar to the one he was given in King Kong, just slightly sleazier and more corrupt. That puts the film in familiar territory, even before the ape makes an appearance. Terry Morse is fine in the lead, just without much to do other than tell a special effect what to do. Ben Johnson, who would go onto great things, is disappointing here in one of his earliest roles, wooden and lacking any emotion.

Even though a few other films earn credit for starting the 1950s creature film set, Mighty Joe Young truly was the beginning of that cycle. It’s a bonus that it’s right up there with the original Kong in terms of thrills. It’s a shame the original garners so much praise while Young is left behind. Kong deserves it, but so does Joe. (**** out of *****)

This amazing transfer is the best of the recent releases with barely a scratch or speck of grain to complain about. Contrast keeps the black levels accurate and strong. Clarity is downright ridiculous given the age of the print. The only problems come from the finale, tinted orange like it always has been. The compression here is understandably rough given the color, but it truly hurts the footage. It’s a jarring change from the clarity showcased earlier. (****)

Audio is presented in 2.0 mono, a solid track that lets all the details through. There are only a few brief moments where the audio is scratchy or sounds dated. It’s a solid presentation. (***)

While the Son of Kong disc was left barren, Mighty Joe Young contains quite a bit to watch and listen to. The lead feature is a commentary with Ray Harryhausen, Ken Ralston, and Terry Moore. It’s rough going for Moore whose acting and stage stories are pushed aside while the two special effects masters discuss the on-screen happenings. Ralston has fun picking up on the flaws (strings, wires) and Harryhausen is surprised every time and can only respond with, “You’re not supposed to see that!”

A Conversation with Ray Harryhausen and the Chiodo Brothers is a 15-minute piece that talks about his career, with an obvious focus on Joe Young. It’s a basic roundtable discussion focused squarely on Harryhausen and his experiences, plus talk about Willis O’Brien.

Ray Harryhausen and Mighty Joe Young is a piece close to the above, just with one of the actual models used in the film (what’s left of it of course) in the center of the frame. The Chiodo brothers, special effects men themselves, are obviously star struck. Harryhausen explains the process, which is redundant with the commentary. (****)

Updated in 1998, the Mighty Joe Young remake did a fine job of keeping the charm of the original. Unfortunately, it went overboard with the comedy and goofiness of the subject matter, and in the end, failed to become as memorable. Stick with the completely under appreciated original.
ED: JH

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.
  • http://mightyjoe larry

    i saw mighty joe young. iloved

    it. it. im not sure if was the same movie that was filmed at the the pike in long beach ca. long
    gone, but not forgotten. larry

  • JC

    My favorite film of all time. Long live Mr. Joseph Young!