True to the spirit of the original, while taking liberties with its plot, this remake of a 1949 minor landmark in special effects is more a fairy tale than a monster movie, a kinder, gentler variation on its obvious source of inspiration, King Kong (1933).
Unlike Kong, who was at heart a homicidal maniac, Mighty Joe is just a big, lovable wuss. True, he can be a little cranky sometimes, baring his teeth and hoisting a terrible noise up through his yard-long larynx, but then you’d be edgy too if you were the only 3,000-pound gorilla in the world. The poor guy probably doesn’t get much action, if you catch my drift.
The story begins with baby Joe’s mother being killed by evil poachers — Russians, no less — then flashes forward 20 years to when a full-sized Joe is living an idyllic existence with one Jill Young (Charlize Theron), the daughter of a Dian Fossey-type who was also killed by evil poachers — the same ones, actually. Into their Central African Eden comes the well-meaning zoologist Gregg O’Hara (Bill Paxton, overworking the goofy smile) who convinces Jill that the best thing to do would be to relocate Joe to a zoo in L.A. Why? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Don’t ask.
Once in sunny L.A., Joe is ensconced in a few acres of simulated natural habitat, which is both humane and eliminates the logistic horror of having to clean out his cage. Of course, Jill is the only one who can really control Joe, read his moods, soothe him, sing him to sleep as she lies nestled in his great leathery paw (awwww ...). Anyway, much clichéd plot ensues while we patiently await the moment when Joe will break out of his nature reserve and wreak some good old-fashioned havoc.
And he does, an event precipitated by the reappearance of the evil poachers from the movie’s prologue. The head poacher is so evil that he suggests to a minion, rather cryptically, that if they capture Joe he’d be worth more to them if they cut him up into little pieces. Perhaps he has in mind to corner the international novelty paperweight market. This, like Joe’s sex life, is best not pondered.
Suffice it to say, Joe escapes; Disney-style havoc is wreaked; Joe redeems himself by saving a small boy from a burning Ferris wheel, takes a nasty fall in the process and either dies or ends up wearing the world’s largest back brace. I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you by saying which.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.