Disney’s African entertainment subdivision— recent offerings include the various incarnations of The Lion King, wilderness theme parks, and George of the Jungle— adds a new item to the product line with the big-screen technological trifle Mighty Joe Young. Remaking the strictly-for-kicks 1949 original as a holiday-appropriate feel-good outing, Young is the perfect introduction to the Continent formerly known as Dark for the children of ecofriendly soccer moms and dads. Multiculti enough to depict an Africa whose local population includes South Asians, this picture is not so indifferent to tradition that its lithe, blond female lead can’t effortlessly charm both man and savage beast.
Young opens neo-Bambi-style, with a baby ape and a little white girl bonded in blood when their mothers are murdered by poachers. The girl grows into gone-native protector of animals Jill (Charlize Theron, resplendent in Putumayo wrap skirts throughout), while the wide-eyed little monkey will become the biggest gorilla the world has ever seen. The impressively rendered Joe might be part-robot, part-digital figment, but he’s all cutes at heart. Whether playing hide-and-seek with Jill or absently crunching a car to silence its alarm, Joe’s just an “aw-shucks” problem child, too big for his own good.
Joe and Jill’s African Eden has been steadily encroached upon by poachers and that dreaded social disease, civilization, so when they’re “discovered” by American zoologist Gregg (Bill Paxton), they happily hightail it to a zoo in Los Angeles. Jill falls for Gregg despite Joe’s disapproving, Homer Simpsonish growl, while the caged-in ape becomes a media darling, drawing the attention of the same poacher who killed his mommy. After a rather Freudian freak-out during a fundraiser, Joe goes on the lam in LaLaland, Young‘s main question becoming how to get him back to Africa in one piece.
The movie’s formulaic animal hijinks risk very little and therefore return less, the film unable to satisfy even the impulse toward ghoulish racial rubbernecking. (During some lengthy full-body rubbing and purring between Joe and Jill, I wanted to tell the person next to me that the film’s sexual tension was becoming apparent, but he was six and still hiding his eyes from some earlier fright.) Joe himself is an admitted F/X marvel. Whether in huggy close-up or breezily bounding across cityscapes and savannas, he’s seamlessly brought to life by the kids at Industrial Light + Magic, and director Ron Underwood (City Slickers) is surprisingly reserved in deploying him, Joe always subservient to the film’s thin narrative line. Mighty Joe Young would scan
just as legibly if it starred a
normal-sized gorilla or an elephant, making this great-ape movie disappointingly more akin to Free Willy than King Kong.