Mighty Joe Young (1998 film)

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Mighty Joe Young
Mighty joe young98.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Ron Underwood
Produced by Ted Hartley
Tom Jacobson
Written by Merian C. Cooper
Ruth Rose
Mark Rosenthal
Lawrence Konner
Starring Bill Paxton
Charlize Theron
Rade Serbedzija
Peter Firth
Regina King
David Paymer
Music by James Horner
Cinematography Donald Peterman
Oliver Wood
Edited by Paul Hirsch
Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures
Release dates
December 25, 1998 (1998-12-25)
Running time
114 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $90 million
Box office $50,632,037

Mighty Joe Young is a 1998 American adventure film based on the 1949 film of the same name and directed by Ron Underwood. It stars Bill Paxton and Charlize Theron, and in the film's version, the ape is much larger than in the original.


Jill Young is seen as a child at the beginning of the film when she witnesses the death of her mother, Ruth Young (Linda Purl), and the mother of Joe, an infant mountain gorilla, at the hands of poachers led by Andrei Strasser (Rade Šerbedžija). Strasser loses both his right thumb and trigger finger to Joe, and swears revenge on the gorilla for the damage. Before she dies, Ruth tells Jill to take care of Joe, to which Jill agrees. Twelve years later, Jill has raised Joe who, because of a rare genetic anomaly, has now grown to a height of 16 1/2-feet (5 meters) and weighs 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms). As a result, the other gorillas won't accept him and both are now living in relative peace until a wildlife refuge director, Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton), convinces Jill that they would be safer from poachers if they relocate to the United States.

The trio goes to Hollywood, Los Angeles, California and win the hearts of the refuge staff, who are so impressed by Jill's relationship with Joe that they put her in charge of the Gorilla. One day, Jill is approached by Strasser, who is now running a fraudulent Animal Preserve in Botswana while actually selling animal organs on the black market. He has seen a news report about Joe and is now eager for revenge. At first Jill does not realize Strasser was the poacher who killed both her and Joe's mothers, since Strasser's right hand is hidden in his coat pocket. Strasser tries to convince Jill that Joe would be better off in his wildlife refuge back in Africa. Later, during a gala, Strasser's henchman, Garth (Peter Firth), uses a poacher's noisemaker to scare Joe into a frenzy. Joe trashes the gala, recognizes Strasser and tries to attack him. Joe is then captured and placed in a concrete bunker. Before their departure, Gregg has fallen in love with Jill and he kisses her goodbye.

When Jill learns that Joe may be euthanized, she decides to take Strasser's offer. She and the refuge staff smuggle Joe out in a truck. On the way to the airport, Jill notices the half-glove covering Strasser's missing fingers, and realizes who he really is. She briefly fights Strasser and Garth, then jumps from the truck and onto Hollywood Boulevard, leading to the first of several automobile accidents. Joe sees her and rocks the truck over onto its side and escapes. Meanwhile, Gregg has realized that Strasser is a poacher and goes after both Jill and Joe. He finds Jill, who reveals to Gregg that Strasser killed her mother and now plans to kill Joe. They locate Joe at a carnival where he is playfully wreaking havoc. Strasser arrives and attempts to shoot Jill, but Garth pushes Strasser's gun away from Jill and causes him to fire at a spotlight, subsequently starting a fire and causing the Ferris wheel to break down. Realizing how ruthless Strasser truly is, Garth says that he quits, but Strasser knocks Garth unconscious with his gun. Strasser eventually confronts Jill and attempts to kill her, but Joe sneaks up behind them and tosses Strasser into the air, where he grips onto electrical wires over a transformer. Short two fingers on the hand holding the wire, as he lost his thumb and trigger finger, Strasser is killed when he loses his grip and he falls into the transformer, electrocuting him, and leaving only the half-glove hanging from the wiring. Later, at the Santa Monica Pier, Joe tries to save a child from atop the burning wheel, but the fire burns it down and Joe and the child fall to the ground, where Joe jumps off of the burning wheel, protecting the boy and knocking himself unconscious as the police cruisers are smashed into chunks. Joe survives the fall and awakens and they mention that they need to raise money to open a preserve for him. The young boy Joe saved donates some change to Jill after hearing this, prompting the rest of the crowd of onlookers to contribute.

Joe is returned to Uganda where Jill and Gregg open the "Joe Young Preserve." In the final scene Joe runs off into the distance, enjoying his newfound freedom.



A model of the trailer used in a scene from the film. The model is now used in an attraction at Disney's Hollywood Studios

Cinematographer Donald Peterman suffered head injuries, a broken leg and broken ribs due to a crane accident on the film set in 1997.[1] A cameraman was also injured in the accident, which plummeted Peterman's camera platform 18 feet to the ground when the crane snapped.[1]

For the majority of the film, Joe was portrayed by creature suit performer John Alexander who wore a radio-controlled animatronic gorilla mask and full body suit created by special makeup effects artist Rick Baker and his crew at Cinovation Studios. In order to achieve those scenes, Alexander would often act on miniature sets that were surrounded by blue screen in which visual effects house DreamQuest Images would composite him into footage that was shot before. While in the beginning of the film when Joe was an infant he was performed by Verne Troyer. For certain scenes, the filmmakers used three full-sized animatronics (one in quadraped, one sitting down, and one in a dead position) also created by Baker's crew. For the scenes where the digital Joe was used, visual effects houses DreamQuest Images and Industrial, Light, & Magic would work on different scenes using the same model provided by Baker. Many of these performances were achieved by key-frame animation, but when the digital Joe was running and jumping was motion capture data that they captured from an infant chimpanzee.


The music for the film was composed and conducted by James Horner. The soundtrack was released in December 1998.

Mighty Joe Young: Original Score
Film score by James Horner
Released December 8, 1998
Recorded 1998
Length 73:01
Label Hollywood
James Horner chronology
Back to Titanic Mighty Joe Young Bicentennial Man
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
SoundtrackNet 2.5/5 stars

Track listing[edit]

No. Title Length
1. "Sacred Guardian of the Mountain"   3:57
2. "Poachers"   7:52
3. "Attempted Capture"   6:00
4. "The Trees"   6:04
5. "Our Last Chance – A New World"   3:48
6. "A Broken Promise"   4:31
7. "Leaving by Night"   5:14
8. "Hollywood Boulevard"   7:45
9. "Freeway Crossing"   4:08
10. "The Carnival"   6:22
11. "The Burning Ferris Wheel"   7:36
12. "Dedication and Windsong"   9:44


The movie grossed $50,632,037 with a production budget of $90 million, thus becoming a box office bomb, due to competition with The Prince of Egypt, The Rugrats Movie, Babe: Pig in the City, A Bug's Life, and Patch Adams.

Critically, Mighty Joe Young had a better reception than the year's other big monster remake, Roland Emmerich's Godzilla; however it ultimately received mixed reviews, some critics criticizing it as being typically 'Disney' in plot and outcome. The movie holds a rating of 52% from Rotten Tomatoes, with the site's critical consensus being "Beguiling effects transcend a predictable plot." [2]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 3 stars out of 4, saying, "Mighty Joe Young is an energetic, robust adventure tale: not too cynical, violent or fragmented for kids, not too tame for adults. After all the calculation behind "Godzilla" or "Armageddon," it has a kind of innocence. It's not about a monster but about a very big, well-meaning gorilla that just wants to be left in peace." Despite giving the film positive reviews, he also pointed out that the romance scenes and villains were only average and by no means exceptional.[3] Common Sense Media gave the film 4 stars and said, "The 1949 RKO version of Mighty Joe Young is a tired monster film of the ape-runs-amuck variety that tried (unsuccessfully) to cash in on the popularity of King Kong. This Disney version has plenty more to offer a young audience. As Jill follows in her mom's footsteps, this environmentally-friendly story provides serious food for thought. It also provides plenty of comic relief. Joe is a feat of technical wizardry; he's so life-like that it's hard to believe he's a composite of animatronic and digital effects. Children will warm to him, especially since Joe is particularly sweet to kids. They will also enjoy Theron's and Paxton's engaging performances, and applaud (as an 8 year-old viewer did) when this couple inevitably gets together. If the climactic sequence is too intense for small children, it certainly ends happily. Mighty Joe Young turns out to be a heart-warming experience with an environmental message."[4] Reelviews Movie Reviews gave the film 3 stars out of 4, and generally positive reviews: "Although Joe's size makes him a monster, his disposition makes him cuddly. Despite not being daring in style or story, Mighty Joe Young is nevertheless a charming and enjoyable adventure, and a rare remake that's better than the original. It may not have the box office punch to exceed the $100 million mark, but it's good enough to entertain an audience."[5] Colin Fraser of eFilm Critic gave it 3 stars, saying "Strictly for ten-year-olds, Mighty Joe Young has its ample heart in exactly the right place. After an opening sequence that will have kiddies reaching for Kleenex, the action soon picks up with many a thrill on the way. This is not Jurassic Park however and doesn't really deserve its Academy nomination for effects."[6]

Among those who criticized the film included Maitland McDonagh of TV Guide, who gave the film 2.5 stars out of 4 and said, "This is technology-driven spectacle: It's too shallow to really work for adults, but so slow and relentlessly serious that kids are bound to get restless. Joe himself is an amazing creation, less personable, to be sure, than the original lovelorn King Kong, but a far more fully realized character than any of the flesh and blood humans by whom he's surrounded."[7] Paul Clinton of CNN gave it negative reviews, saying, "Great scenery, cartoonish villains, huges leaps of suspended belief, and mouthwatering shots of Charlize Theron are in plentiful supply in "Mighty Joe Young." And baby, can this boy travel. He goes from Africa to L.A. in just one dissolve. Then when he escapes he goes from Hollywood Boulevard, to the Los Angeles river, to the Pacific Palisades in seconds. If you're not familiar with L.A ... trust me ... couldn't happen." and "The gorilla is pretty impressive and expressive, but overall it's much ado about -- not much. I have a feeling this film will be fairly low on the food chain of "must see" holiday films."[8] Stephen Holden of The New York Times gave the film generally unfavorable reviews, saying, "Mighty Joe Young, directed by Ron Underwood from a screenplay by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, is saddled with dialogue so wooden that Mr. Paxton and Ms. Theron almost seem animatronic themselves. Little children won't notice. In Joe, they can identify with the biggest, cuddliest simian toy a 6-year-old could ever hope to own."[9] Dustin Putman gave it 2 stars out of 4 and negative reviews, saying "Mighty Joe Young is an agreeable time-waster for older kids (it's much too violent for the youngest viewers) and perhaps some adults, but in a season when children could also choose to see the marvelous "The Prince of Egypt," and adults could pick any number of far superior films, "Mighty Joe Young" simply pales in comparison. Although you could certainly do much worse, there is only one really distinctive quality about the film, and that is Charlize Theron's charismatic performance."[10]

Mighty Joe Young also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects, losing to What Dreams May Come.


External links[edit]