Africa, twelve years ago, and a little girl called Jill stays on a farm there with her widowed father. One day, she notices a couple of men walking by carrying a basket, and stops them to take a look inside. When she sees what's there, she is determined to have it and fetches some valuables, including her father's flashlight, to barter with the men. They are sceptical that she'd have anything they'd want until they see the flashlight which convinces them to hand over the basket. And what's inside? A baby gorilla, who Jill names Joe...
Mighty Joe Young is surprisingly fondly recalled, mainly by those who saw it when they were children and were enchanted by its special effects work and touching story. Never mind all those who saw it as a watered-down, ultra-schmaltzy remake of King Kong, this fifteen years later variation had value after all. The film was made by the same team as the classic giant ape movie, with producer-director team Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack recruiting Willis O'Brien once again to design and animate the title character. Ruth Rose, Schoedsack's wife, returned to script, but there was a new face at the table.
That man was Ray Harryhausen, who ended up perfecting his stop motion technique in bringing Joe to life, doing most of the work with the gorilla into the bargain. Unlike Kong, it's only about fifteen minutes into the film until we are rewarded with our first glimpse of Joe, when promoter Max O'Hara (Robert Armstrong, also back and obviously not learning any lessons) goes to Africa (not any particular part, just the continent in general apparently) to round up animals for his latest nightclub gimmick. This being twelve years after the introduction, not only has Jill grown up to be Terry Moore, but Joe has grown too.
In fact, he's now ten feet tall, larger than the average gorilla which is a point never explained, but he will only attack when riled. Or when he sees a lion, as he really has something against the King of the Jungle, witness his reaction when he finds one in a cage and starts taunting it. This brings O'Hara and his second in command Gregg (a very youthful-looking Ben Johnson) running and we are treated to the first real special effects sequence with O'Hara's men wrestling to bring Joe down with lassoes and failing to do so. When Joe goes as far as swinging the promoter around, he is in danger of being shot, but then a young woman appears to calm him down.
She's Jill, and before long O'Hara is offering her a contract to take her to America for fame, fortune and nice clothes. Starstuck Jill agrees, and that's when their troubles start because Joe isn't best pleased to be locked up for most of the time simply so he can be part of a nightclub act. Although the comparisons between this and Kong are patent, the film also resembles a Tarzan movie with Moore as Joe's Jane, complete with unthinking white men calling the shots and the hero preferring his jungle life to so-called civilisation. Joe literally becomes an organ grinder's monkey in one scene, showing how humiliating showbiz can be in pursuit of novelty (although the tug of war with the strongmen is a highlight), so it's no wonder Joe goes on the rampage. The final third is a race to save the ape, and while overall Mighty Joe Young may be corny, it's a real charmer too. Remade around fifty years later. Music by Roy Webb.