When Jill Young (Charlize Theron) was a little girl (Mika Boorem), she spent a lot of time with her mother around the mountains where the African gorillas lived, looking after their wellbeing, researching them and protecting them from poachers. Jill grew quite attached to one of the gorilla babies, who she named Joe and noticed before her mother did that he was growing at a far faster rate than his peers. All very well, but this peaceful existence was about to be ruined by poachers led by Strasser (Rade Serbedzija) who would not only kill Joe's mother but Jill's as well...
The original Mighty Joe Young was blessed with truly endearing stop motion animation from Ray Harryhausen, but for the nineties remake another effects expert was called in, only he was an expert in makeup effects: Rick Baker, no stranger to ape costumes for the movies. Working with some other skilled technicians, Baker's costume, with John Alexander (who had been an ape in Greystoke) inside it, this Joe was one of the most convincing giant apes in cinema, rivalling even the one in Peter Jackson's King Kong remake for authenticity in its design.
So if the gorilla was great, how did the rest of the film work out? Very earnestly, as it turned out, with the novelty value tempered by a drive to make this the fantasy equivalent to Gorillas in the Mist with Theron in the Dian Fossey role. Director Ron Underwood and his writers, Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, were determined to keep this tale as believable as possible as it was to keep a giant ape flick believable, which meant a lot of the fun went out of the story and a lot more of the feeling that you were being sternly lectured was introduced.
Bill Paxton played Gregg O'Hara, a scientist who has gotten wind of the possibility that there is a huge creature on a certain African mountain, and after hiring some men who definitely are not poachers (i.e., they definitely are) he tracks Joe down with surprising ease. When he ascertains the close relationship between his find and Jill, he implores her to let him take Joe back to America with him so he will be safe, and with Strasser hearing of the massive ape and realising that this is the one that bit off his trigger finger and thumb when he was killing his mother, he grows determined to hunt Joe down.
Serbedzija makes for a hissable villain, and when Jill is persuaded by Gregg he follows them to California and an animal park where Joe is given his own enclosure, which may be safer but does not offer him as much room to roam. From then on it's predictable all the way, with Joe going on a mini-rampage at a posh dinner for investors due to Strasser winding him up, and then having to be locked away where, as Jill tells us, he is not eating and will die in days! Yeah, yeah, it is pretty contrived, but at least it stays faithful to the spirit of the original, and the final half hour where Joe goes on a mega-rampage is very well handled. This has heart, though too often resembles an educational special for a made-up creature here representing his normal sized kin, meaning it's a difficult film to lose yourself in. But those effects are truly excellent. Music by James Horner.