In 1949, the world was introduced to King Kong's more likable cousin, Mr. Joseph Young. The creators of Kong gave us another giant ape, only this one was as cuddly as he was huge. His innate kindness made up for any violent rampages he might have had.
Forty-nine years later, Joe returns to the big screen, and he is more than welcome. Director Ron Underwood's (City Slickers) remake is a pleasant surprise. This time around, Joe and Jill Young (Charlize Theron of Celebrity) become best friends when poachers kill both of their parents. Twelve years later, Joe is now a one-ton behemoth who scares off any hunters foolish enough to come near his mountain.
That changes when American scientist Gregg O'Hara (likably played by Bill Paxton from A Simple Plan) discovers the ape's lair and inadvertently attracts hordes of illegal hunters. To ward off any people who wish ill for the beast, Jill and Joe reluctantly agree to leave Africa to join Gregg at a California nature preserve.
Joe has a hard time in his new environment. He hasn't got much room, and he can't see enough of Jill. Worse, the hunter Strasser (Rade Serbedzija) who killed Joe's mom knows all about Joe's new home and wants to remove him, in pieces.
Only time will tell if the remake has the staying power of the original. However, Joe himself is as likable as ever. Makeup wizard Rick Baker (Eddie Murphy's The Nutty Professor) and an ace special effects crew don't always create an ape that looks real (some of the closeups look more like foam rubber than flesh). Nonetheless, the illusion of Joe's immense size is always convincing, and the phony gorilla is remarkably expressive. The ape's face has dozens of captivating glances. Even the creature's hands demonstrate considerable sensitivity. Joe becomes more than a special effect. As the movie progresses, he wins the audience over with his amiable personality.
He even overcomes a so-so script. The new plot line is predictable, and the dialogue is often stilted. For example, Strasser complains that Joe has bitten of his thumb and trigger finger when the camera has already told us so. Fortunately, the somewhat overqualified cast (which includes Oscar-nominee David Paymer) delivers. Theron is appropriately tough, and Serbedzija projects a slick and menacing demeanor.
There are also a few delightful inside jokes for fans of the original. "Beautiful Dreamer," the song that delighted Joe in the first movie, can be heard in the background. If you look quickly, you'll catch a nifty little cameo from Terry Moore, who had Theron's role in the first movie, and legendary special effects guru Ray Harryhausen.
While some stronger storytelling would have been preferred, it's not wise to quibble with a big ape, especially one who gets by on his charm more than his brawn. (PG) Rating: 7
Bill Paxton pays the price for hanging around in Mighty Joe Young.
© 1998 Walt Disney Pictures, used by permission.