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Mighty Joe Young

FamilyEntertainmentMoviesHolidaysBill PaxtonCharlize TheronPG Rated Movies

Friday December 25, 1998

     If you were shut out of this season's toy-buying frenzy for Furbys and are dreading the disappointment you'll see on your kids' faces Christmas morning, take heart. The best new pet toy of Christmas '98 will be available at your local multiplex, for the price of a ticket to "Mighty Joe Young."
     Joe's a darling, gentle, affectionate, obedient, warm and fuzzy with deep-set, expressive eyes and a playful-pup spirit. Furbys may have more to say, but Joe comes to play. Close your eyes and count to 10, and you're on for a game of hide-and-seek. Of course, you'll have to humor him--it's hard to hide when you're 15 feet tall and weigh 2,000 pounds, when you are, after all, the biggest gorilla this side of King Kong.
     "Mighty Joe Young," directed by "City Slickers' " Ron Underwood for Walt Disney Studios, is a remake of a 1949 RKO film that was itself a knockoff of "King Kong." Like the first film, it's the story of a mutant giant gorilla, his surrogate human mother, Jill Young (Charlize Theron), and their adventures in Africa and the U.S.
     We're dubious of remakes, especially remakes of knockoffs, but this one seems warranted. Five decades is a long time, and even though the '49 version earned Oscars for Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien's stop-motion effects, creature illusions have come a long way.
     Technically, this Joe is a sensation, perhaps the most lifelike giant of them all. Created by modern makeup and effects master Rick Baker, who's previously aped apes for "Gorillas in the Mist," "Greystoke" and the 1976 version of "King Kong," Joe runs, walks, roars and pounds his massive chest without showing any signs of his animatronic workings, or, in some sequences, of the man inside the gorilla suit.
     He's so well executed, in fact, that you very quickly accept him as a real animal and begin to empathize with the feelings pouring from those soulful eyes. Joe's a big baby, orphaned on the same day and by the same bloody hands of poachers who killed both his and Jill's mothers. The killers did not get away scot-free; baby Joe bit off two fingers on one of the poachers' hands, sending him screaming into the night, promising revenge.
     Twelve years later, Jill has grown into a statuesque beauty, and Joe into the most lovable companion a girl ever had. But their bucolic jungle playground is being threatened by encroaching civilization, not to mention poachers, and when the ingenuous zoologist Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton) offers Joe space and protection in a San Diego animal tourist attraction, Jill accepts.
     In the first "Mighty Joe Young," the beauty (played by Terry Moore, who has a cameo here) and the beast come to America as a nightclub act, which leads to disaster because of Joe's disdain for the hedonist ways of club patrons. In the remake, written by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner ("The Beverly Hillbillies"), Joe's problems are more people-specific. His mother's killers (Rade Sherbedgia, Peter Firth) are back, and there are scores for both sides to settle.
     The feud will spill out of Joe's new home, and take him and his pursuers on a tour of some of the most famous landmarks in Los Angeles. King Kong had his Empire State Building, Mighty Joe Young has the Hollywood sign.
     As silly as things get, parents of Furby-aged children are advised to pay heed to the film's PG rating. The early scenes with the poachers and the baby ape in the jungle are intense, and the violence in the climactic chase sequence is bluntly realistic.
     Still, "Mighty Joe Young" may be the season's most appealing family bet. Certainly, it has an appealing cast. Paxton, who has the rutty look of a middle-age Huck Finn, is the perfect hunk-Everyman for this kind of adventure. And Theron (listen carefully, because I'm only going to say this a thousand times) is the most gorgeous woman working in film.
     Merry Christmas. "Mighty Joe Young" is a Furby for the whole family.


Mighty Joe Young, 1998. PG for some menacing action violence and mild language. Walt Disney Pictures. Directed by Ron Underwood. Screenplay by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner. Produced by Ted Hartley, Tom Jacobson. Executive producer Gail Katz. Co-executive producers Mark Lisson, Gary Stutman. Based on a screenplay by Ruth Rose and a story by Merian C. Cooper from RKO Pictures "Mighty Joe Young." Supervising producer Ralph Winter. Directors of photography Don Peterman, Oliver Wood. Production designer Michael Corenblith. Edited by Paul Hirsch. Mighty Joe Young creature designed and produced by Rick Baker. Visual effects supervisor Hoyt Yeatman. Music composed and conducted by James Horner. Costume designer Molly Maginnis. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Charlize Theron as Jill Young. Bill Paxton as Gregg O'Hara. Rade Sherbedgia as Strasser. Peter Firth as Garth. David Paymer as Harry Ruben. Regina King as Cecily Banks.

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