Meet Joe Young (again)

The never-ending story of Hollywood going ape for a really big gorilla

In 1933, producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest B. Schoedsack, and pioneering animator Willis O'Brien created one of this century's most indelible and powerful archetypes: King Kong. Then they did a peculiar thing: As if appalled at what they had wrought--but also delighted at the money it made them--they spent much of the rest of their careers taming that myth.

They managed to get the sequel Son of Kong into theaters the same year. But where Kong pere was a sexually and romantically frustrated ruler who couldn't make it in Manhattan but made sure the Big Apple would never forget him, Kong fils was a cuddly sort. Junior--an albino ringer for the Abominable Snowmonster in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer--is such a softie that when Skull Island sinks into the sea, he nobly drowns saving the life and fortune of the same reckless showman (Robert Armstrong) who shanghaied his old man.

Yet even this second version of the tale proved too rough-edged for the filmmakers. Sixteen years later Cooper (with co-producer John Ford), O'Brien (with apprentice Ray Harryhausen), and Schoedsack (again working from a script by his wife Ruth Rose), crafted the original Mighty Joe Young. The elements are similar: A showman, again played by Armstrong, goes into the wilderness, Africa this time, finds another giant ape, and brings it back to the U.S. as an attraction. Once again a blonde holds the key to the beast's heart.

Instead of King Kong's diaphanous, unobtainable Fay Wray, however, this time around the woman was played by girlish Terry Moore, and the ape, Joe Young by name, is her big lug of a pet. In Armstrong's nightclub Joe is also her co-star, holding her above his head on a platform while she plays "Beautiful Dreamer" at the piano. He does break loose and run amok, but instead of showing his defiance by climbing the Empire State Building--the biggest phallic symbol in the world--Joe shows his sense of civic duty by climbing a burning orphanage to rescue the kiddies. Everyone is happy at the fadeout. Where Kong carried all sorts of sexual and racial and mythic subtext around with him, Joe, rather disappointingly, was merely a credit to his species.

The posters for the original Mighty Joe Young roared that the title character was "Mightier Than King Kong!" There is one sense, and only one, in which that might be true--Joe has survived being remade better. Despite a then-state-of-the-art ape suit fashioned by Rick Baker, the mid-'70s redo of King Kong was miserable. But Disney's new, big-budget Mighty Joe Young, also with special effects by Baker, is surprisingly enjoyable.

No doubt this is in part because no matter how badly the new film had turned out, it would hardly have constituted the desecration of a masterpiece. Happily, it turned out nicely anyway. The script, though faithful in its structure to the original, has been updated cleverly; instead of being brought to America by showpeople, Joe is now transported here by an animal conservancy that recognizes his fundraising potential. Additionally, Joe and his blonde paramour (Charlize Theron) are bound together by a shared, symmetrical childhood trauma that heightens the story's fairy-tale quality. I could have done without the two corny poacher villains (Rade Sherbedgia and Peter Firth), but at least their menace keeps the story from getting too wimpy and Disneyish. Bill Paxton replaces Ben Johnson as the manly hero, and he performs serviceably.

The direction, by Ron Underwood, whose debut film was the splendid little monster picture Tremors (1990), is swift and muscular. He pays his respects to the original: Moore and Harryhausen show up in small parts; Johnson and Ford are saluted via a poster for Wagon Master (1950); and a street musician plays "Beautiful Dreamer" during a love scene.

Most of the credit for the success of this Mighty Joe Young, however, must go to Baker--this ape is one of his most impressive creations. Baker has come up with a hybrid of the species gorillus cinematicus--that impossible cross between grizzly bear and Stanley Kowalski that has served the movies so well--and an actual gorilla, that shy, retiring, morosely beautiful creature known to zoology but never before faked this well in the movies. (Gorillas in the Mist doesn't count, because much of its footage employed real gorillas.) As in the 1949 Mighty Joe Young, and in King Kong before that, the title character of this new film is also by far its most complex and memorable one--and the only character for whom we can feel any real sympathy.

Mighty Joe Young.
Directed by Ron Underwood. Written by Merian C. Cooper, Ruth Rose, Mark Rosenthal, and Lawrence Konner. Starring Bill Paxton, Charlize Theron, Rade Sherbedgia, and Peter Firth. Opens Friday.

 
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