A Call to the Wild: Revisiting Mighty Joe Young (1998)

Joe gets a remake in this well-meaning live-action effort from Disney featuring the late, great Bill Paxton. Oscar gives it another look. 

The remake of Mighty Joe Young by Walt Disney Pictures is yet another divisive film among cinephiles, often regarded as a subpar remake. Yet, once again, I must posit the unpopular opinion – I really enjoy this film. It’s not at all the best of these giant ape movies or even Disney’s live-action library, but I’ll contend there is a lot to like about it. While it is a creature feature first and foremost, its other strengths include strong leading performances, a stirring score, and great effects for the time which hold a charm to this day.

In the jungles of Africa, naturalist Ruth Young studies gorillas in the wild, and her daughter, Jill, befriends an abnormally large baby gorilla that she calls Joe. Poachers attack the gorillas at night, and their leader, Andrej Strasser (Rade Serbedzija), kills Joe’s mother and shoots Ruth, who barely manages to rescue Joe, who bit off the lead poacher’s right thumb and trigger finger in the struggle. Jill sneaks out of her house and finds Joe and her mother, and her dying wish is that Jill take care of Joe, while the local village elder Kweli looks after Jill.

Twelve years later, Jill (Charlize Theron) has raised Joe who has now grown to be six times larger than a normal gorilla due to a genetic anomaly, meaning he cannot join with his kind. Their relative peace is disturbed by a wildlife refuge director, Gregg O’Hara (Bill Paxton), who arrives in Africa in search of Joe, who has become the modern legend “N’gai Zamu” – the Sacred Guardian of the Mountain. After collecting some blood samples from a captured leopard, Joe arrives and intimidates Gregg’s nervous expedition team. They give chase and Joe evades capture, but Gregg follows Joe’s trail, only to be grabbed by Joe and saved in the nick of time by Jill. He receives medical attention and proceeds to follow Jill to see her playing games with Joe, and tries to persuade her to let him take Joe to a wildlife preserve in California so that he can be free from persecution. After a run-in with some poachers, Jill reluctantly changes her mind, and agrees that they would be safer from poachers if they relocate to the United States. When they get to the refuge, Joe has some trouble adjusting to his new surroundings, but slowly starts to accept them. Unfortunately, his arrival has attracted the attention of Strasser who plans to kill Joe in revenge.

The acting is passable but not exceptional, save for one. The late, great Bill blends into the unfazed, laidback expedition leader well, playing his goodnatured tough guy character straight, although his energetic spontaneity is not on display much here. Regardless, he will be missed. Theron gives the best performance of the group as the strong, stubborn and at times maternal Jill Young. Despite Paxton getting top billing and appearing first in the film, this really is Charlize’s movie; if she wasn’t invested in her role, I probably wouldn’t care much for the movie itself. Despite being fairly thinly-written, I found Serbedzija to be an effective and threatening antagonist, working well within the story and remaining on the right side of over-the-top. In supporting roles, David Paymer and Regina King as wildlife preserve staff members do okay with the material alongside Paxton and Theron. Perceptive fans will notice none other than Ray Harryhausen himself attending a zoo fundraiser party with Terry Moore; a brief pair of cameos but nevertheless welcome.

For the first time in a while, I struggled to determine the balance of digital to practical effects because of the strength of the illusion, as supervised by ape makeup and costume veteran Rick Baker. The majority of Joe’s screen time was achieved by a combination of life-sized animatronics and an actor in a gorilla suit, optically inserted into the scene. The CGI animation by Disney-owned Dream Quest Images doesn’t always hold up so well, and the real strength of Joe’s performance comes from ape suit actor John Alexander. Alexander does his scenes either in front of a bluescreen or on one of the 40%-scaled sets that are identical to the ones the other actors inhabit. Closeups of Joe’s face and upper-body use superb animatronics, which mimic a real-life gorilla’s facial structure. His eyes, lips and facial movements are expressive even in the close shots, and there’s a bit of anthropomorphism in how much emotion Joe is able to convey, not unlike his original claymation counterpart. The other gorilla suits seen in the beginning were far more realistic than Baker’s work in the 1976 King Kong remake, and better than another movie featuring gorillas, namely Frank Marshall’s Congo.

James Horner’s score is an underrated gem. He captures the exotic allure of the African jungles with sweeping trumpet cues and gentle flute melodies, reminiscent of classic Hollywood scores and creating the impression of something huge emerging. He blends in ominous piano motifs, shakuhachi flutes, and rapid drums helping to drive up tension. The standout piece is the charming, emotive and memorable central theme for the film as well as an uplifting closing credits piece combining orchestration and an African choir.

The cinematography by Don Peterman and Oliver Wood emphasises the verdant natural beauty of the jungle and contrasts that with the city environment with harsh blue lighting. An early scene of poachers in the jungle is framed much like the early hunt for E.T. with the camera at boot-level; there are loud jangles of keys and weapons on the soundtrack as well as powerful flashlight beams cutting laser-tracks through the mist. The African action scenes are a good showcase for the technology at the time. In a sequence where he’s being pursued by men in Land Rovers, the camera parallels Joe before swinging in front of him, then moving in for a closeup, all the while keeping up with the action remarkably well.

It should be noted that I saw the original Harryhausen movie first before watching the remake, and it seems to me that they’re both fairly similar in quality. Despite being a reasonably faithful remake of the original, there are a lot of changes and updates to the setting and characters. Combining the two characters of Gregg the cowboy and Max O’Hara from the original film streamlines the story. While their romance is not the most noteworthy, the film does take time to establish a connection between Jill and Gregg, as well as a little more chemistry than the older versions. Jill’s backstory is more involving and her relationship with Joe is more emotional because of it. None of these changes were necessarily film-breaking problems with the original; it’s not fixing what wasn’t broken, but the updated material actually goes a long way to making it feel like a well-rounded film experience. Both actors demonstrate an understanding of what kind of movie this is and thus summon the wonder and sincerity to maintain the illusion of Joe as a living giant ape. Although clichèd at times, it keeps things going at a sprightly pace whilst packing in a fair amount of characterisation. In the vein of paying tribute to the past, Ruth Young reminds me of Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey. While incidental to the film, I like to think that Ruth is named in honour of the writer of the original film, as well as King Kong, Ruth Rose.

Despite some gripes from other reviewers, I liked the idea of having poachers responsible for Joe being an orphan as it explains a plothole from the original movie and gives it an extra touch of reality. Admittedly, the villain Strasser was quite conventional, but he can be genuinely threatening when things take a turn for the worse and he starts actively hunting both Joe and Jill through Los Angeles, or when he approaches Jill posing as a friendly old man – there is still a sense that something is wrong whenever he pretends to be friendly.

The film achieves a good balance of being more subdued and playful with its visual effects than its contemporary blockbuster kin, such as the lesser Roland Emmerich Godzilla, while also being a full-blooded action film. But one with a certain warmth and humor instead of a nihilistic or thick-headed sensibility. Yet it’s not a laugh-out-loud fest either – the humour tends to be hit and miss with Paxton being the most reliable with his dry one-liners. Critics at the time praised the effects and took umbrage with the story for being too dark for kids and too light to be a monster movie for adults. There is some credence to this critique, but I felt that the film owes most of its tonal qualities to adventure films like Jurassic Park and Jumanji, mainly for their ability to balance tension and action while being family-friendly romps. The action itself doesn’t lack punch or vitality, but it really comes into its own in the third act when Joe wanders around L.A. and struggles to reunite with Jill despite the hunter chasing him. You feel good at the end and glad to have gone on the journey.

Many films in the 90s had a strong environmental overtone to them and this film is no exception, but it does a few things differently. While the unruly nightclub setting isn’t replicated, the wildlife preserve Joe is moved to is shown to have its shortcomings as well. In the end, the preserve is too focused on raising funds, and the stubborn conservancy official fails to see eye-to-eye with Jill. Despite that, there is some toying around with archetypes; one of the scientists, Harry Ruben (Paymer), comes off as a nebbishy and gawky character, but eventually shows his true colours by helping Jill and Joe leave when Joe’s life is at stake. The film succeeds in making Joe a compelling character in his own right, with needs, emotions and relationships, rather than a visual effects gimmick, and that makes the overdone environmental message more tolerable.

Overall, I stand by Mighty Joe Young as a solid and likable adventure film that sometimes feels a little more tailour-made for kids but never to the point that adults will find nothing of value. It has a lot of Disney-esque innocence and softness in it, and I will admit, anyone looking for a monster film will likely be disappointed. The story has more of an adventurous feel, the characters are more slightly developed, and the combination of practical effects and the sparing use of CGI just helps to make Joe seem that much more alive. It’s a decent example of what a Mighty Joe remake should be – an update of a story that wasn’t really that successful to begin with.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Since Gorillas in the Mist (1988), Rick Baker stated that he would not do any more projects that involved creating animatronic apes. Baker had to break that statement when he did Baby’s Day Out (1994), in which a scene features a gorilla. After that film, he once again stated that he would not do any more ape projects, but when he got called to work on this film, he changed his mind. It was because of Baker’s love for King Kong, and the original film, that changed his mind. This would be his last film that Baker created an animatronic gorilla suit.
  • The movie poster that is briefly seen at Grauman’s Chinese Theater is Wagon Master (1950), a John Ford/Merian C. Cooper production, starring Ben Johnson. All three were involved in the original Mighty Joe Young (1949). Ford and Cooper as producers, and Johnson as the lead.
  • The film’s trailer used music from Stargate (1994) and Stargate SG-1 (1997).

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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