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Film / Mighty Joe Young

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Mighty Joe Young is the name shared by a 1949 film and its 1998 remake. The original movie combined live-action and Stop Motion animation. Willis O'Brien, better known for King Kong (1933), was credited with the animation and effects designs. In practice, his protege Ray Harryhausen completed much of the animation, which was the younger animator's first significant film work. The remake used animatronic models and puppets, with some CGI animation.


The film was produced by RKO Radio Pictures and directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, 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.

Twelve years later, Max O'Hara (Robert Armstrong), a theatrical impresario, is preparing to have a safari in Africa. He plans to collect animals for his next project, an exotic Hollywood nightclub. O'Hara needs 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 gets followed by a furious Jill (Terry Moore), now all grown up. Max calms 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 he can find a replacement act. Weeks later, the duo is still waiting. Jill has a new reason to be reluctant to leave - she and Gregg have fallen for each other. At this point, a trio of drunken customers finds 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 cooperate 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 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 mainly 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), loses two fingers in the process and has to retreat to get medical help. Joe, the orphaned baby gorilla, is left in Jill's care.

Twelve years later, Joe has grown into an enormous gorilla, and Jill is worried about his status as a target for more poachers. She gets 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 reserve's staff and even attracts the attention of the press, alerting Strasser to the gorilla's current whereabouts. He has spent all these years blaming Joe for crippling him and wants revenge.

Strasser poses as an environmentalist who is interested in returning Joe to Africa. He has a henchman use a noisemaker to make Joe go on a rampage. In the process, Joe recognizes Strasser and attacks him. For attacking people, the authorities condemn Joe to death. Jill wants to smuggle him out of the country and assigns Strasser to the mission but realizes Strasser's true identity too late. 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 50,632,037 dollars in the United States market and underperformed elsewhere, failing to cover its budget. It settled at only the 44th most successful film of its year, though it eventually sold well on home video. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual 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 dramatic poacher storyline.

Both films contain examples of:

  • A Boy and His X: A girl and her (giant) gorilla. Jill has been taking care of Joe most of her life.
  • Bring It Back Alive: In both versions, Joe gets taken from Africa to the United States.
  • Dire Beast: Joe, at fifteen feet tall, is more than twice the size of the largest known real-life gorilla. This is given a handwave in the remake by explaining that the gorillas from his part of Africa have a recessive gene for gigantism that pops up every four or five generations.
  • Escaped Animal Rampage: In both versions, Joe escapes the facility where he's kept. The 1949 film has Joe running amok in a safari nightclub, and in the 1998 film, he escapes into Los Angeles after the transport truck he was in overturns. But calling either a rampage is a bit of an exaggeration. In the 1949 film, a fight between Joe and several escaped lions that Joe was trying to protect people from caused most of the damage. The 1998 film primarily consists of Joe being a large confused animal wandering around and scared out of his mind.
  • Fix F Ic: In a manner of speaking, it's "King Kong with a Happy Ending."
  • Gentle Giant: Joe is a very docile giant gorilla unless you give him a reason to be mad at you.
  • Gentle Gorilla: Unlike King Kong, Joe is a docile, friendly, and playful giant gorilla who only attacks people when he's pushed too far.
  • King Kong Copy: Joe himself is a giant gorilla very similar to Kong (albeit somewhat smaller and friendlier), who is tamed by a woman named Jill Young. Similarly to Kong, Joe is taken to the city and exhibited to the public, then escapes and goes on a rampage.
  • Lighter and Softer: Compared to King Kong. Joe is gentler, causes very few fatalities, and even rescues endangered children from fire. In the 1949 film, the same actor who played Denham played O'Hara, but is a much more Benevolent Boss and realizes the error of his greed, helping the heroes get Joe back home.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • For the 1949 film, the men who got Joe drunk, thereby causing his rampage, escape the angered gorilla and are never shown again and never punished.
    • Regarding the 1998 remake:
      • Pindi disappears from the movie after calling Strasser to tell him about Joe.
      • Garth furiously turns against Strasser when his boss attempts to shoot Jill, but Strasser knocks him out with his gun. For the rest of the film, Garth isn't seen again, leaving his fate unknown.

The 1949 version contains examples of:

  • Benevolent Boss: In the original, there's a scene where O'Hara steps in to defend one of his cigarette girls against a trio of loutish drunks, assuring them that all of her cigarettes that they just ruined will be coming out of their tab and not her paycheck.
  • Bullying a Dragon: The original film has a trio of drunkards give the titular giant gorilla alcohol — enough to inebriate him. This action clears them out of booze, and in retaliation, one of them burns his hand as Joe begs for more. Then Joe bursts out of his cage for a drunken Roaring Rampage of Revenge through a nightclub.
  • Bus Full of Innocents: Played straight to perfect effect in the 1949 version, with the 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?
  • Credits Gag: Two from the 1949 version:
    • (Opening credits): "And Mr. Joseph Young As Himself."
    • The only closing credit is the message "Good Bye From Joe Young."
  • Organ Grinder: Joe is involved in a humiliating performance playing an organ grinder's monkey with Jill, acting as a little girl, turning the handle.
  • Orphanage of Love: The orphanage in the original film seems to have been one of these, with a kindly, concerned staff and a large, well-kept building. Unfortunately, it catches fire. Luckily and thankfully, Mighty Joe Young arrives to ensure all the children get saved.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: O'Hara, in the 1949 film, is greedy, a blowhard, and a bit crooked, but he ultimately has a good heart.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: In the original film, Joe saves one of the men who harassed him from a lion. When he runs into Gregg, Jill, and Max later, he claims that Joe tried to kill him.

The 1998 version contains examples of:

  • Admiring the Abomination: Gregg's reaction to seeing Joe for the first time is sheer delight in the remake. When Joe outmaneuvers Gregg's group's attempts to catch him, all Gregg does is gush about Joe's intelligence.
  • Alone with the Psycho: In the remake, Jill realizes part way during the truck drive to the airport that the man right next to her is the Evil Poacher who murdered her and Joe's mothers and is very likely planning to kill her too.
  • Animal Nemesis: Joe is this to Strasser after biting two of his fingers off.
  • Asshole Victim: You hardly feel sorry for Strasser when Joe tosses him to some wires over a transformer, on which he falls and gets electrocuted to death.
  • Berserk Button: Upon realizing Strasser is the man who shot his mother, Joe goes on a rampage and attempts to kill him.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Jason, that little boy in the car passing the truck Joe's riding in early on, who waves to him (inspiring Joe to wave back)? Joe remembers him and risks his own life to save him later, causing the people of Los Angeles to see Joe in a new light and give him a happy ending.
  • 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, as he sells animal parts (including from endangered animals) on the black market.
  • Deconstruction: The 1998 version is arguably a deconstruction of King Kong. The ape isn't an island-dwelling monster but an average mountain gorilla with extreme giantism. Some treat Joe like a scary monster, but he is entirely harmless and friendly unless he feels that he or his friends are getting threatened. The female lead has more in common with Jane Goodall than the screaming Damsel in Distress of Kong. And when Joe finally does go on his "rampage," it's because the poacher who killed his mother confronts him.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Strasser and Garth walk around the conservancy in California, and nobody besides Joe realizes that the two are poachers. Justified as Jill didn't see their faces that night, and Strasser has kept a low profile to ensure he will not be recognized.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Strasser and Garth were planning to provoke Joe into simply frightening the guests at the benefit. They didn't consider the possibility of Joe breaking out of his enclosure. When this happens, Joe almost kills Strasser before getting tranquilized.
  • Disney Death: The 1998 version has this happen to Joe himself, as he falls from the ferris wheel and is knocked cold for several minutes before finally reviving.
  • Disney Villain Death: Strasser meets his end when Joe stops him from shooting Jill and then flings him on some wires over a transformer. Strasser, being two fingers short of holding the wire, loses his grip, and he falls into the transformer electrocuting him to death, leaving only his half-glove hanging from the wiring.
  • Distressed Dude: Unlike the original film's Bus Full of Innocents in the burning orphanage, the '98 version has a lone boy trapped on a burning Ferris wheel.
  • Dramatic Irony:
    • When Jill meets Strasser as an adult, as she never saw his face, she has no idea that she is speaking to the man who killed her mother.
    • The police see Joe kill Strasser, not knowing Strasser is a poacher and a murderer, further convincing them that Joe is a dangerous animal who needs to be put down.
  • Egomaniac Hunter: Strasser combines this trope with Evil Poacher.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • Strasser's henchman, Garth, looks genuinely horrified when Strasser is about to shoot Jill in cold blood.
    • Earlier in the movie, he is also the one who insists they should help Jill's mother after Strasser wounds her. So he's a cruel man regarding animals, but he draws the line at killing people.
  • Even the Loving Hero Has Hated Ones: Joe is a Friend to All Living Things, but despises Strasser for killing his and Jill's mothers. Once Joe realizes who the poacher is, he tries to kill him on sight.
  • Evil Poacher: Andrei Strasser and his followers. The former has no problem gunning down humans who get in his way as much as he doesn't hesitate to cruel practices like killing mother gorillas to sell the babies.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: Strasser dies via electrocution when he falls into a transformer.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Compared to his outwardly thuggish demeanor when he was younger, Strasser seems rather kind and grandfatherly, which is how he gets Jill to trust him. Indeed his living revolves around getting people to trust him to look after animals at a phony wildlife reserve before selling them on the black market.
  • Ferris Wheel of Doom: The burning orphanage is replaced by a burning carnival in the 1998 remake, with a young boy named Jason trapped on the Ferris wheel and Joe going to save him before it collapses. The rescue is considered one of the film's most memorable scenes.
  • Fingore: Andrei loses two fingers to Joe after the gorilla bit them off.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Joe is kind to all creatures he comes across, even predators a gorilla would normally be wary of, like a leopard.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Strasser is a monstrous poacher who's far more evil than Joe.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Zigzagged. The security guards who shoot Joe with tranquilizing darts at the nature preserve hit him, but police shooting at him with conventional firearms miss every shoot. Justified in the latter case as the cops are firing at Joe from greater distances, and he is moving, making him a harder target. Strasser completely averts the trope and is a very good shot, hitting Jill's mother while firing a rifle from one arm, and he would have hit Jill in the climax if Garth had not interfered.
  • It's Personal:
    • Killing animals is normally a business for Strasser. He is hoping to make a fortune from selling Joe in pieces, but getting Revenge for Joe biting off two of his fingers is clearly just as much of a motivator.
    • The feeling is mutual on Joe's end. Despite only having seen Strasser's face once, when taunted by the key chain heard the night Strasser killed his mother, Joe goes berserk and attempts to kill Strasser.
  • Karmic Death: Strasser killed Joe and Jill's mothers when they were children. As an adult, Joe avenges both when he kills Strasser.
  • Knight of Cerebus: Strasser. The movie starts off innocently with Joe and Jill playing. Then Strasser enters and kills their mothers. Once Joe seems to be settling into a new habitat, Strasser pushes the ape's Trauma Button, causing people to see Joe as a violent monster, resulting in Joe being put in a cage.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Strasser kills Joe's mother before trying to capture Joe. In response, the frightened baby gorilla bites two of Strasser's fingers off. His insistence on killing Jill out of spite results in Joe crushing his good hand before tossing him into a transformer where he is electrocuted to death.
  • Manipulative Bastard: After the 12-year time skip, Strasser masquerades as the owner of an animal preserve and fools people into leaving animals with him while he secretly kills the animals and sells their body parts on the black market. After realizing who Joe is and that Jill does not remember him from their encounter, he pretends to be a friend of her mother while lying to Jill about owning a large enough animal preserve for Joe, knowing that after he provokes Joe into a rampage, Jill will send Joe to him.
  • Mirror Character: When Joe sees Jason trapped on a Ferris wheel, calling for his mother, the gorilla recognizes the boy is much like him, longing for his own mother.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Jill has this moment after she realizes who Strasser is.
    Gregg: Jill! Are you okay?
    Jill: What did I do? Those are the guys who killed my mother! We gotta go, Joe’s in trouble!
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In the Disney version, Morris the panda's owner gives him to Strasser, unaware that he's a poacher, although what happened to Morris afterward is unknown.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: While Strasser initially wants to kill Joe in retaliation for the gorilla biting off two of his fingers, once Jill's mother gets Joe to safety, Strasser gives up the chase because he will die if his injury is not treated.
  • 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 a young Joe bit off years ago.
  • See You in Hell: Strasser's last words.
    Strasser: "Goodbye, Jill. Meet your mother... in Hell."
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Men hired by Pindi for Gregg's expedition catch a leopard, and to Pindi's surprise, Gregg only wants a blood sample. Pindi says he knows a man who will pay good money for the leopard, but Gregg insists that they are not taking the leopard out of its habitat.
  • She Knows Too Much: Strasser attempts to murder Jill because she knows he is a poacher and that he killed her mother. He fears that if she tells other people the truth about him, she will ruin his cover operation as a faux wildlife protector.
  • The Sociopath: Strasser is not only a ruthless and greedy poacher but also a cold-blooded murderer who is not against killing humans.
  • Stock Animal Diet: In one scene in the remake, Joe eats a banana tree.
  • Uncertain Doom: Garth stops Strasser from shooting Jill, and the enraged Strasser strikes Garth in the head with the butt of his rifle. Whether or not Garth died or merely suffered a Tap on the Head is never made clear.
  • You Killed My Father: "You Killed Our Mothers" in this case. Both Joe and Jill have this attitude towards Strasser.