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MIGHTY JOE YOUNG

by: Michael Dequina

Before every movie shown in Greater Los Angeles movie theatres, a commercial for the Los Angeles Times plays. One such ad from a few years back featured well-known effects creator Rick Baker and, as the centerpiece of the spot, one of Baker's creations: a high-tech gorilla suit about as lifelike as any you'd find in a costume shop.

Watching the update of the 1949 RKO Picture Mighty Joe Young, I was often reminded of this spot, and it's not because the titular gorilla was (coincidentally) designed by Baker. Much like that ad of years ago, the intent of Joe is to make the audience marvel at the wonder of Hollywood special effects--and instead ends up failing miserably. Years may have passed, but Baker's gorilla effects are only slightly more convincing, which means that they are still laughably phony-looking (and, as such, compulsively watchable for the wrong reasons).

This should spell complete disaster for Joe, which is, after all, the tale of a gentle giant gorilla who yearns to roam free. But the film's nearly two-hour running time is given some substance by the flesh-and-blood actors (who, I must say, deserve better than this film). Charlize Theron plays Jill Young, the surrogate mother to the big ape, and she is able to make the audience feel and understand her affection for Joe, even if we don't have much for him ourselves. Bill Paxton gives a likable, low-key performance as zoologist Gregg O'Hara, who "rescues" Joe from his poacher-infested home in the African jungle and places him in a Southern California-based wildlife preserve, where Joe gets antsy.

But the cast nor Ron Underwood's brisk direction can mask the clunkiness of Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner's script, which has a poacher (Rade Serbedzija) following Joe to the States to settle a personal score with the furry guy (Joe bit off the poacher's thumb and index finger years ago). As hard-to-swallow as that plot contrivance is, it's nothing compared to the insulting climax. I won't spoil it, but never have I seen such a large group of generous individuals gathered in one place.

Still, the many children in the audience with whom I saw the film oohed and aahed at all the right moments, completely enthralled by Joe's destructive--but never overly violent--antics. The same will probably be the case in theatres showing Mighty Joe Young; it is sure to please its target audience of kids. It's just that the filmmakers forgot about the adults who pay to bring that target audience to the multiplex. Chances are that they, too, will end up marvelling at how not-so-marvelous those gorilla effects are.

RATING: ** 1/2 (out of *****)

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