Growing up alone on her father’s farm in Africa, young Jill discovers tribesmen carrying a baby gorilla past her house and decides she has to have it. Trading a flashlight, she names him Joe, but her father warns her that when the gorilla grows bigger, he’ll become dangerous and they won’t be able to keep him.
12 years later, promoter Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong, Carl Denham in the original King Kong) plans a jungle themed nightclub in Hollywood. He decides to travel to Africa for publicity and brings Oklahoma rodeo cowboy Gregg Johnson (Ben Johnson) along with him to “rope lions.”
In Africa, the men have their camp bust up by a 12-foot tall gorilla. Gregg and his compadres ignore warnings that you “can’t rope a gorilla” and go after it. They’re rescued by a teenage Jill (Terry Moore) who tells Joe to leave the men alone. O’Hara seduces her into signing a contact to appear with the giant gorilla in his club, and ignoring Gregg’s advice that she should stay at home, she agrees.
While initially a big hit in Hollywood, Joe grows depressed. Gregg and Jill plan to take him home, but before they can, Joe breaks out of his cage and smashes up the club. The courts declare that the gorilla should be shot. Joe’s friends have other ideas.
Directed by Ernest Shoedsack from a screenplay by Ruth Rose and a story by Merian C. Cooper, Mighty Joe Young featured design work by Willis O’Brien, the special effects pioneer who created King Kong. He designed the film’s storyboards, while an apprentice working on his first feature film named Ray Harryhausen was responsible for most of the film’s stop motion effects.
The movie is kinder, gentler and thus not as well regarded as King Kong, but is much more technically astounding. Along with Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Jurassic Park, this is one of the most breathtaking visual effects spectacles ever produced, action packed and seamlessly blending actors together with special effects.
The many memorable effects sequences include Joe’s first appearance (toying with a caged lion), Joe on stage in a tug-of-war with ten legendary strongmen, and Joe breaking out of his cage, destroying the club and setting loose the lions. Harryhausen is not content just animating Joe, but creates stop motion lions, cars, trucks and humans for shots where it wasn’t feasible to use the real thing.
The effect this handmade stop motion work has on the imagination is fantastic. Yes, the script is decent at best, and the performances aren’t that great. Though he’d win an Academy Award for The Last Picture Show in 1971, this was the first acting gig for ranch hand and rodeo performer Ben Johnson, and it shows.
It might seem silly to end the film with Joe rescuing children from a burning orphanage, but the sequence is awesome, with a fiery, jack-o-lantern orange tint over the black and white film stock, flames, stunt men, a stop motion gorilla and models all timed together perfectly. A point of view shot that follows Joe crashing to the ground on a tree had me thinking, “They stole that for Return of the King. It looks way cooler here.”
My complaint about recent effects blockbusters is that many have no soul. What distinguishes Harryhausen’s work is that instead of an army of technicians working against a deadline, with Harryhausen, it was all one guy and truly a labor of love. He didn’t have the technology to make anything look realistic, but he found ways to give his characters emotion, attitude and soul. I can think of no better example of this than Mighty Joe Young.
Roy Webb’s music over the opening credits gives the movie such an exotic feel, I was prompted to throw some Tarzan flicks onto my Netflix queue.