Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack
Writer: Ruth Rose
Cast: Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, Robert Armstrong, Mr. Joseph Young, Frank McHugh, Douglas Fowley, Denis Green, Paul Guilfoyle, Nestor Paiva, Regis Toomey, Lora Lee Michel, and James Flavin
Composer: Roy Webb
Release Date: 7/27/1949
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
As a child, Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel and Terry Moore) purchases a baby gorilla from two African traders. Having grown substantially over the next twelve years, “Joe” attacks a nearby camp established by promoter Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) and sidekick Gregg (Ben Johnson). Impressed, O’Hara offers to make Joe the main attraction at an extravagant Hollywood nightclub. Despite accepting O’Hara’s proposal, Jill regrets her decision when Joe, forced to live in a cage and perform degrading acts before an audience, openly despises the new arrangement.
Conceived by the same crew responsible for King Kong, Mighty Joe Young is a classic tale of friendship, sacrifice, and redemption in a family-friendly setting. Possibly the most remarkable aspect of this film, Joe’s involvement with Jill, O’Hara, and other humans will tug the heartstrings of those with a sensitive disposition.
Though extremely dated, the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen continues to impress in one regard: the eye movements of Joe convey a wide variety of emotions, allowing him to elicit compassion more effectively than King Kong ever could. Highlights include rage (evident during Joe’s terrifying outburst at the nightclub), sorrow (when Joe struggles to embrace captivity), and desperation (displayed during Joe’s rescue effort at the burning orphanage), which provide Joe with an almost human complexity to complement his animalistic ferocity.
On a technical level, Mighty Joe Young is hampered by one significant flaw: the bodily proportions of Joe differ tremendously from one scene to the next. Supposedly done for dramatic effect, Joe’s inexplicable variations in size may irritate viewers with a keen eye for detail.
Also problematic is the wooden acting of a young Terry Moore. Specifically, Moore’s lack of range at the time prevents Jill, a woman whose plight should firmly resonate with animal lovers, from convincing the audience of her concern for Joe. In one scene, for example, Jill’s tearful response to an imprisoned Joe comes across as incredibly forced, thereby lessening the impact of an otherwise powerful sequence.
Similar to King Kong, Mighty Joe Young contains a commentary on the human tendency to exploit nature for profit. In this movie, however, redemptive themes take central focus in the final act, with Max O’Hara (fittingly portrayed by Carl Denham actor Robert Armstrong) aiding in the escape of Joe after subjecting him, if unintentionally, to indignities that no creature should ever experience—a poignant and commendable twist on the giant monster trope.
By putting an original, heartwarming spin on the King Kong legend, Mighty Joe Young earns its status as a true family classic. Exceptionally worth praising is Joe’s ability to love and care for people, a characteristic that Kong typically fails to possess.
Overall Quality: 9/10
If you enjoyed this post, please enter your email address in the subscription box to stay tuned for more updates.