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Mighty Joe Young is the name shared by a 1949 film and its 1998 remake. The original film combined live action and Stop Motion animation. The designs for the animation and effects are credited to Willis O'Brien, better known for King Kong (1933). In practice, much of the actual animation was completed by his protege Ray Harryhausen. This was the first major film work of the younger animator. The remake used CGI animation.
The film was produced by RKO Radio Pictures and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, who is best known for co-directing King Kong. The film starts somewhere in Africa. A little girl, Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel), asks her father to buy her a baby gorilla. He does so, against his better judgment. Jill names her new pet "Joe" and treats him like any other baby, feeding him milk from a bottle and singing him to sleep.
The scene shifts to twelve years later. Max O'Hara (Robert Armstrong), a theatrical impresario, is preparing to have a safari in Africa. He plans to collect animals to use for his next project, an exotic Hollywood nightclub. He is need of a decent animal handler. He hires Gregg Johnson (Ben Johnson), a rodeo roper. He is the first of several cowboys hired by Max, who figures he could give a western theme to his nightclub. Weeks later, their expedition unknowingly enters the lands owned by the Young family. An enraged Joe is there to meet them and defend his territory. The baby has grown into an enormous ape. He is followed by a furious Jill (Terry Moore), now All Grown Up. Max manages to calm her down and later convinces her to join him in Hollywood. She and Joe are to become the headliners at his Golden Safari nightclub.
While the duo debuts to great success, Jill is disturbed that her "friend" has to be caged every night. She wants to resign, but Max convinces her to wait until a replacement act could be found. Weeks later, the duo are still waiting. Jill has a new reason to be reluctant to leave -s he and Gregg have fallen for each other. At this point, a trio of drunken customers find amusement in performing animal abuse. An intoxicated Joe is sufficiently enraged to go on a rampage. While it doesn't last long, the authorities mark Joe as dangerous and sentence him to death. Jill, Gregg and Max have to co-operate to rescue him.
The film was a commercial flop, one of several that plagued RKO under the administration of Howard Hughes (term 1948-1955). There were plans for a sequel, but these were terminated early. However, the effects were impressive for the time and the film gained an Academy Award for Special Effects. While essentially a tamer and more humorous take on King Kong, the film would later find its audience on television. For decades, it was broadcast alone or with other "giant ape" films, gaining a reputation as a classic.
The film was co-produced by RKO Pictures (a corporate successor which mostly handles old properties) and Walt Disney Pictures. The director was Ron Underwood, better known for Tremors (1990) and City Slickers (1991). The film established a new back story for Joe and Jill. As a little girl, Jill Young (Charlize Theron) witnessed the death of her mother (a zoologist) and a female gorilla at the hands of Evil Poachers. Their leader Andrei Strasser (Rade Serbedzija) looses two fingers in the process and has to retreat to get medical help. An orphaned baby gorilla is left in the care of Jill. She names him "Joe" and raises him.
In the present day, Joe has grown into an enormous gorilla and Jill is worried about his status as a target for more poachers. She is contacted by Gregory "Gregg" O'Hara (Bill Paxton), a wildlife refuge director, who convinces her to move to the United States with Joe. Joe is a great favorite with the staff of the reserve and even attracts the attention of the press. This alerts Strasser to the current whereabouts of the gorilla. He has spent all these years blaming creature for crippling him. He now wants revenge.
Strasser poses as an enviromentalist who is interested in returning Joe back to Africa. He has henchmen of his use a noisemaker to have Joe go on a rampage. In the process, Joe recognizes Strasser and attacks him. For attacking a human, the authorities condemn Joe to death. Jill wants to smuggle him out of the country and assigns Strasser with the mission. She realizes too late who Strasser actually is. Joe and Jill have to fight their way out of Strasser's hands while Gregg searches for them-partially out for their safety, partially out of falling for Jill.
This film was a box office bomb. It earned an estimated an 50,632,037 dollars in the United States market and underperformed elsewhere, failing to even cover its budget. It settled at only the 44th most successful film of its year. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Special effects, but lost to What Dreams May Come. While some critics praised the added depth to the characters and the special effects, most complained about the rather melodramatic poacher storyline.
The two versions of the story provide examples of the following tropes:
- A Boy and His X: A girl and her (giant) gorilla.
- Bullying a Dragon: The original film has a trio of drunkards give the titular giant gorilla alcohol -- enough to inebriate him. This clears them out of booze and in retaliation, one of them burns his hand as Joe begs for more. Joe then bursts out of his cage for a drunken Roaring Rampage of Revenge through a nightclub.
- Bring It Back Alive
- Bunny Ears Lawyer: Max O'Hara all the way!
- Bus Full of Innocents: Played straight to perfect effect in the 1949 version, with the added bonus of the title character saving himself from Death Row. Who would want to shoot him after he saves several orphans from a burning building?
- Chekhov's Skill: Joe playing hide and seek in the '98 version helps him to evade police copters.
- Cruella to Animals: Strasser is a male version.
- Deconstruction: The 1998 version is arguably a deconstruction of King Kong. The ape isn't an island-dwelling monster, but an otherwise normal African gorilla with extreme giantism. The female lead has more in common with Jane Goodall then the screaming damsel in distress of Kong. And when Joe finally does go on his "rampage" it's because he's confronted with the poacher that killed his mother.
- Disney Death: The 1998 version has this happen to Joe himself.
- Egomaniac Hunter: Strasser combined with an Evil Poacher.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Strasser's henchman, Garth, looks genuine horrified when Strasser is about to shoot Jill in cold - blood.
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: Featuring a pet gorilla. Technically a great ape, not a monkey.
- Evil Poacher: Andrei Strasser and his followers.
- Fake Nationality: In both versions, Jill Young was born and raised in Africa. Terry Moore was born in Glendale, California. At least Charlize Theron is South African. Naveen Andrews plays Pindi, an African, in the 1998 remake. Andrews is a British Indian from London.
- Ferris Wheel of Doom: The burning orphanage is replaced by a burning carnival in the 1998 remake. A boy, Jason, is trapped aboard the Ferris Wheel and Joe has to save him. The Wheel is on fire and about to collapse. The rescue is considered one of the most memorable scenes of the film.
- Follow the Leader: Averted by Peter Jackson, who was about to start raising funds for the remake of King Kong but held off for several years thanks to this film's release.
- Harryhausen Movie: The original film was the first one of them.
- Nice Hat: Strasser's hunting hat whom he wears near the climax.
- Remake Cameo: The 1998 remake featured an elderly couple played by Terry Moore (Jill Young in the 1949 original) and Ray Harryhausen (who did the original's special effects).
Terry: "Doesn't that beautiful young lady remind you of anyone, dear?"
Ray: "Yes... you when you were her age!"
- Red Right Hand: Andrei Strasser and his missing fingers.