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.