Mighty Joe Young

(Ron Underwood, USA, 1998)


This curious remake of Ernest Schoedsack's Mighty Joe Young (1949) is – like many blockbuster productions – a cocktail of elements old and recent.

From the files of retro-nostalgia, the film hopes to draw upon the collective fondness for King Kong. There is a touch of Tarzan as well, via the character of Jill (Charlize Theron), an 'untamed beauty' who has been exclusively a nature-girl from early childhood.

But when Mighty Joe, Lord of the Jungle, finally beats down the main street of a big city in a huff, less venerable movie references come to mind: the spectacular scenes of urban destruction in Independence Day (1996), Deep Impact (1998), Godzilla (1998), even Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1995). Alas, our Joe hardly wreaks any substantial damage, apart from crunching a car in order to silence its pesky alarm.

This is a lightweight concoction which – in the hands of talented director Ron Underwood – downplays the potential for camp ridicule of an old movie formula. Everything about this remake is muted: the budding romance between Jill and benevolent hunter Gregg (Bill Paxton); the environmental message; the contrast between civilised and savage worlds; even the flashes of tense, dramatic conflict.

The plot cruises obliviously through many low-level absurdities – such as the unbelievable innocence of Jill, coyly asking Gregg what "dancing and dating" are all about in the milieu beyond her jungle. The mercenary culture of the jungle's indigenous hunting community is gingerly avoided. A high watermark of inadvertent hilarity is reached in a climactic scene where passers-by at a circus pitch in loose change to help out the poor, exiled Joe.

The primal symbolism of such stories is always fascinating. What exactly is the relationship between Joe and Jill? Jokes in the dialogue posit him as her older, stronger brother. Plot-wise, the fact that Jill's biological father is entirely absent, and that Strasser evokes (fairy tale-style) a classic bad father, suggests that Joe has a more parental role in her life.

However, the images of this pair kissing, cuddling, singing and napping cannot hide the lurking fantasy that, somewhere underneath the story's respectable surface, Joe and Jill are really lovers. All versions of King Kong, as well as many other, less reputable jungle dramas, are completely aware of such erotic undercurrents.

This latest Joe is, unfortunately, the blandest, gentlest ape in cinema history. He eschews any hateful or destructive violence, avoids all roughhouse games injurious to humans, and exhibits degree-zero libido. He is basically just an overgrown kid who likes to play hide-and-seek.

But what is the point of depicting an extravagant Wild Thing from nature if any transgressive frisson is going to be so fastidiously censored?

MORE Underwood: Heart and Souls, Speechless

© Adrian Martin April 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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