Mighty Joe Young (review)

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Bring the Kids!

Disney hasn’t had much of a track record lately when it comes to live-action films — its latest, My Favorite Martian, is a forgettable mess, strangely full of both preschooler toilet humor and situations way too risqué for youngsters. So how delightful it is to find that Mighty Joe Young is a family movie in the old style — it’s Brothers-Grimm scary but not bloody or overly violent, it doesn’t offer a single fart joke, and you won’t need to cover the kids’ eyes during the love scene, which consists only of a sweet, romantic kiss.
Zoologist and conservationist Gregg O’Hara (Bill Paxton) comes to an unnamed African country in search of a mythological giant gorilla and finds Joe, a huge, smart ape who’s basically the pet of Jill Young (Charlize Theron). The daughter of a Jane Goodall-type gorilla researcher, Jill has protected Joe — at her mother’s behest — from the outside world since both Joe’s and Jill’s mothers were killed by a poacher more than a decade earlier (shades of Bambi!). But Gregg knows it’s only a matter of time before the merely curious and the openly avaricious discover wondrous Joe and endanger his freedom and his life, and he convinces Jill to let him bring Joe to a conservancy in Los Angeles. Naturally, as the only one who can control the big guy, she tags along. And — surprise, surprise — the nasty poacher turns up again in L.A., determined to settle an old score with Joe.

Though its simple story follows a predictable course, Mighty Joe Young has much to recommend it for kids. Jill as a child (Mika Boorem) is nicely resourceful, courageous, and independent — there aren’t enough spunky little girls in movies, but she’s a good start. Even as an adult, Jill is heroic, opinionated, and well able to take care of herself — Gregg never has to come to her rescue, and she in fact saves him several times from Joe’s wrath.

Without ever being preachy about it, the movie also offers kids an introduction to conservation efforts. Gregg practices capture-and-release zoology, taking only vials of blood from animals for study, and he refuses to have poachers as guides in the field. Poachers don’t get off easily (Jill calls them “murderers”), but the difficult morality of conservationism does get some airtime — Gregg and Jill wonder, do we really do animals any good when we remove them from their natural environments, even when it’s to save their lives?

Mighty Joe Young owes a lot, stylistically and visually, to Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The poachers, in particular, running through the jungle at night, the beams of their flashlights swinging through the foliage, are reminiscent of the government men chasing E.T. through the California woods, and the hunter here with the metal noisemaker, used to roust out prey, reminded me of the man with the keys in E.T., who seemed the most menacing of the little alien’s pursuers. Why is this good for kids? Well, we grownups know that Raiders and E.T. are great films, but kids can be weird about old movies, not wanting to watch things they’re not familiar with — if Joe can make them more comfortable with a couple of 20-year-old movies, all the better.

Not to imply that Mighty Joe Young isn’t fine for us grownups. Uncomplicated it may be, but it is entertaining and heartwarming — and when I can still cry at the happy ending even though I saw it coming a mile away, how can I complain? As a bonus for me, Joe even has the highly underrated Bill Paxton, whom I’ve championed before. Paxton makes the most of the limited opportunity for an interesting performance — watch his expression of excitement and fear on his first encounter with Joe and contrast it with the look later, of a different kind of excitement and fear, when someone suggests that he’s fallen for Jill. Even Charlize Theron, who didn’t impress me in Devil’s Advocate, is really quite good here.

Is Mighty Joe Young merely an aberration in Disney’s downhill slide? Here’s hoping it’s just the start of a whole new era.

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