Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 27, 2015)
While it’s not unusual for a successful movie to inspire imitators, it does seem odd for one of these to come from the same team that made the original flick. Such was the case with 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, a King Kong wannabe created by many of the folks responsible for the 1933 classic.
Joe does alter the template enough to stand on its own, however. At its opening, we meet Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel), a motherless child who lives on an African ranch with her father (Regis Toomey). When some locals pass by with a captured gorilla baby in a basket, she trades some objects to make the simian hers. Mr. Young disapproves but allows her to keep the ape she names “Joe”.
From there we jump ahead 12 years and meet theatrical impresario Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong). He plans to open a spectacular new nightclub and wants to capture wild animals as part of it. Max hires cowboy Gregg Johnson (Ben Johnson) and his cohorts to come along and help nab the critters.
All goes well until an enormous ape wanders into their camp and causes havoc. Max attempts to capture this beast but almost gets killed by the animal. Just before Gregg shoots the gorilla, an adult Jill (Terry Moore) intervenes and we officially learn that she still pals with a grown-up Joe.
Max decides he wants to feature Joe as a main act in his new Hollywood nightclub, so he lures Jill with dreams of glamour and fame. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t live up to expectations. Joe’s act becomes a smash hit, but he gets stuck in a small cave and grows depressed. Jill finds out she doesn’t like public acclaim either, and Max soon reduces them to the level of cheap sideshow act.
Matters go farther amiss when some louts get Joe drunk and antagonize him. He batters his way out of his cage and destroys the nightclub. This puts him on death row; authorities declare Joe to be a public danger and plan to shoot him. However, Max helps engineer a plan to help Joe escape and send the ape, Jill, and nascent love interest Gregg back to Africa.
When I went into Joe, I expected it to be a variation on Kong, and that’s exactly what I got. It differs enough that we can’t call it a remake, but it bears many similarities. Essentially Joe is a nicer version of Kong in which beauty tames the beast.
It’s also a much less interesting telling of the Kong story. Frankly, Joe isn’t nearly as compelling a character, partially because he lacks the same feeling of menace or threat. Jill handles him pretty well, so we never really think he’ll go totally bonkers on us. This isn’t a beast who’ll drop innocent women to their death ala Kong; he’s a neutered creature, and that softens him too much.
This also means that the action scenes lack the same spark. In Kong, the ape’s rampage was truly exciting, and the whole episode in the jungle with the prehistoric beasts became magical; it gave you a sense of wonder as you wanted to see what would happen next.
Nothing similar comes through in Joe. His attack on the nightclub seems eminently justified given his treatment there, though I don’t really understand why he takes out his anger on the poor lions; they’re victims the same as he. Actually, I do like the movie’s message about the mistreatment of animals, as it seems ahead of its time in the way it makes us feel bad over Joe’s situation and public humiliation.
But that’s a minor component as the movie concerns itself more with general antics. The problem is that these sequences don’t stick. As I mentioned, the action parts of Kong are invigorating, but Joe’s seem more perfunctory and less inspired. I didn’t want to see what would happen next; I just wanted the movie to end.
At least Joe boasts superior visual effects. Still supervised by Kong innovator Willis O’Brien, the Joe puppet seems much better executed and integrated than the Kong doll. Kong was – and is – a surprisingly convincing effect, but Joe looks even more convincing. Granted, you’ll never truly believe he’s alive, but you’ll buy him as much more believable that you should given the fact the movie was created 66 years ago. The animation seems more fluid and the elements combine nicely.
Actually, Joe offers a more convincing performance than some of the humans. Moore is perfectly fine as Jill; she does little to embellish the role, but she plays the disillusioned ingenue well. Armstrong essentially reprises his work as Carl Denham from Kong, so he’s on familiar ground and makes the character reasonably entertaining.
However, we get an atrocious performance from Johnson. He went on to a long and distinguished career in Hollywood that eventually earned him an Oscar for 1971’s The Last Picture Show, but no one could predict that based on his one-note work in Joe. Johnson comes across as a bland sap who maintains a moronic little grin no matter what emotion he needs to portray. Sadness, fear, joy – Johnson always looks exactly the same, and he delivers his lines in a confused monotone. Granted, we’re here to see the big ape, so the humans don’t matter a whole lot, but I still found myself startled by the crumminess of Johnson’s work.
Ultimately, Mighty Joe Young leaves me cold. It updates King Kong but except for improved effects, it doesn’t better its predecessor in any way. This isn’t a bad movie, - it’s certainly better than official sequel Son of Kong - but it isn’t an interesting or exciting one either.