If there’s anything the 1998 remake of Mighty Joe Young won’t be accused of it’s lack of heart. Director Ron Underwood injects countless scenes of the title character making funny faces, reacting to things he doesn’t understand, and Charlize Theron cuddling the gargantuan ape close. It’s a missed opportunity to capitalize on a fun story that remains as viable today as it was in 1949.
With a slightly darker opening involving the murder of both human and animal mothers, the Mighty Joe Young update leans deep into drama territory. Touching moments are everywhere, even when deep into the storyline to the point where it clogs the pacing to a crawl. A dull, clichéd side romance involving Theron and co-star Bill Paxton continues to compound this issue.
An opportunity to lighten the tone is missed with Theron. Her character, Jill Young, has been raised almost entirely in a jungle. While not entirely isolated, she accepts nearly everything she finds when moving into the city. It feels implausible, even in a film with the star attraction being impossible as well.
The design of Joe himself becomes an issue, along with the special effects. Rick Baker has crafted some stunning film apes in his time (including King Kong in 1976), but Joe isn’t one of them. While the animatronics are stunning, allowing realistic emotion and facial expressions, the overall design is somewhat dopey and far too friendly. The big eyes sit in the face and make the creature’s angrier moments more campy than frightening. His elongated face seems too big for his body.
Compiled in a variety of styles, the effects are spotty elsewhere, too. Considering its nearly $100 million cost, it’s flat out embarrassing that at times you can clearly see right through Joe in certain shots due to transparency. Most shots are of an ape suit, using extensive forced perspective that makes it difficult to gauge the scale of the beast. There’s an extra layer of a human element in the performance that also hinders the illusion whereas in the original, Joe’s antics were firmly planted in ape-like behavior.
There’s a wonderful nod to the original film, providing a cameo for master animator Ray Harryhausen and lead actress in the original, Terry Moore. Sadly, that’s as far as this one goes in terms of keeping the memory of the first Joe alive. There are nuances, such as Joe crashing a lavish dinner party, but this isn’t even remotely on the scale of the bar assault that became the centerpiece in 1949. Here, the ape stomps around and knocks over some tables. It’s a far cry from a fight with lions, swinging on vines, and destroying canopies.
As the finale rolls around, Underwood has created enough of a bond between ape and audience that the emotions run high. You’re certainly rooting for Joe in his quest for redemption, and an extended false ending is a fine choice. Getting to that point is an over bloated affair, lacking even half the charm or carefully planned effects of the 1949 version.
Disney has chosen to release the film on DVD without an anamorphic transfer, and it has remained this way since its initial debut on the format. Regardless, this is a fine transfer that struggles during certain jungle sequences. Aliasing and compression creep up, making the sharpness level seem lower than it is. Out into the city, this looks wonderful. Black levels are superb, and detail is high enough that you can pick out individual furs on Joe’s coat. Compression is still a small culprit, though not as noticeable as it is early on.
On the other hand, this is a loud, active, and simply superb 5.1 audio presentation. Every step Joe takes, you’ll feel it. Separation in the surround channels is clear, and the brief city rampage makes for a perfect example. People begin fleeing on foot to escape, and they fill the room with screams. Other action sequences are equally engrossing in terms of audio.
Even with the countless special effects scenes, the only extra is a worthless three minute feature that barely rises above a trailer. This is a film crying out for a special edition, and given the lackluster box office performance, Disney should be looking for ways to fill in that financial hole.
Out of the three Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack classic giant ape films, only one remains without a remake. 1933’s Son of Kong, while not a particularly great film, could certainly lead to some fun matinee family fare. Rumors were that Dino De Laurentiis had plans after his 1976 Kong to turn that into a franchise, but it led nowhere until 1986’s mess, King Kong Lives. Peter Jackson made an April Fool's joke about a remake during the creation of his Kong remake, and that’s the last we may ever hear of the Kong offspring.