Mighty Joe Young

on December 25, 1998 by Mike Kerrigan
   Finally, a family film that really can be enjoyed by the whole family. It's not dumbed down for kids. It's not full of double entendres pandering to grown-ups. It's just a wonderful example of rock-solid, gilt-edged entertainment that, on a good day, nobody in the world does better than American moviemakers and nobody in America does better than Disney.
   Ron Underwood has made an updated version of the fondly remembered 50-year-old RKO picture by taking its best elements, like its humanity, and making them work for the '90s. It gently teaches lessons about respect for human and animal life while being thoroughly engaging.
   In truth, the 1949 "MJY" was often compared unfavorably with "King Kong," which many of the same people had made 16 years earlier. What was recognized, however, was the vast improvement in special effects. Ray Harryhausen, the first master of stop-frame animation, had by then joined up with "Kong's" Willis O'Brien, and between them they breathed new life into the gorilla.
   These days, their torch is confidently carried by special effects supervisor Rick Baker, who takes the art to a whole new level. This is no ordinary Joe, but an astonishingly realistic creation using the very latest in live-action, animation, and computer wizardry. The result is seamless, a 15-foot, 2,000-pound character who is as real as anyone else in the film. And for trivia buffs, Harryhausen makes a cameo appearance.
   And as for those other actors, the ubiquitous Bill Paxton ("Twister," "Titanic") competently essays another nice guy, while the luminous Charlize Theron ("Celebrity") is totally convincing as the woman who has shared Joe's life since she was a child and is now his only protector.
   In this version, Joe leaves Africa because he is in jeopardy in his native habitat. Of course, life on the West Coast has its hazards too, as his long-time nemeses--a couple of poachers--try to capture the unique beast. This leads to an exciting, if rather conventional, chase through the streets of Hollywood and beyond.
   One odd note: The villains, played by Croatian Rade Sherbedgia and Britain Peter Firth, speak with marked South African accents but are hinted to be Eastern European, presumably so as not to upset sensitive Boers. Charlize Theron is, however, really from South Africa. Truly a "Mighty Joe Young" for the politically correct '90s. Starring Bill Paxton and Charlize Theron. Directed by Ron Underwood. Written by Mark Rosenthal & Lawrence Konner. Produced by Ted Hartley and Tom Jacobson. A Buena Vista release. Adventure. Rated PG for some menacing action violence and mild language. Running time: 114 min
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