Examining Hollywood Remakes: Mighty Joe Young

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As cinematic simians go, Joe Young is not as well remembered as King Kong or Caesar from the Planet of the Apes films, but the original 1948 film has enough of a cult following to rate a remake, which came out exactly 50 years later.   

The 1948 version of Mighty Joe Young was made by some of the same people as the classic King Kong (1933) was. It had the same writer (Ruth Rose), one of the same lead actors (Robert Armstrong) and the guy who did the Kong SFX (Willis O’Brien.) Fun Fact: O’Brien trained FX legend Ray Harryhausen, who also worked on this film as Willis’ First Tech. But I digress. The purpose of the 1949 version was to recapture the magic of King Kong but with a happier ending. This was a kinder, gentler—and somewhat smaller—version of Kong. It didn’t do well at the box office when it premiered but that didn’t stop it from developing a cult following over the decades.

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Like King Kong, the 1948 Mighty Joe Young was done by the technique of Stop-Motion, invented by Willis O’Brien for The Lost World (1925) and made famous in King Kong (and later improved upon in the 1950s by Harryhausen with films like Jason & the Argonauts and 20 Million Miles to Earth). In the 1998 version, Mighty Joe was done by a man in a radio controlled animatronic gorilla suit created by legendary make-up artist Rick Baker (who did the creature make-up for Star Wars) although in a few scenes, Joe was completely digitized by the FX crew. For their respective eras, both films had excellent FX and both were nominated for SFX Oscars. (The 1948 version won that year.) The newer one, however, had a better story than the original.    

The plot of the original: A little girl named Jill Young is living on her father’s ranch in Africa and decides to buy herself a baby ape to keep her company. Cut to 12 years later and 20 year old Jill (Terry Moore) has inherited her late father’s ranch and the ape, named Joe, is now 15 feet tall. When theatrical producer Max O’Hara (Armstrong) and his young cowboy sidekick Gregg (Ben Johnson) arrive to collect animals for a strange nightclub act that O’Hara is planning, they spot giant-sized Joe and try to capture him. Jill comes to break up the confrontation. O’Hara convinces Jill to come to New York and experience fame and fortune by displaying Joe as an attraction.

Mighty Joe Young 1949

Cut to a few months later and Joe is being used in a demeaning way on stage by night while living in a cage by day. Jill realizes her mistake and wants to go home but O’Hara stalls her. While she is romanced by cowboy Greg, Joe is sulking in his cage. When some random drunks walk unhindered to Joe’s unguarded cage, they torment the big ape and burn him with cigarettes. Joe breaks out of his cage and goes berserk. After he is recaptured, Joe is sentenced to death. O’Hara has a change of heart and helps Jill and her cowboy boyfriend rescue Joe. After spiriting Joe away in a truck and being chased by a police, they pass the corniest of clichés—an orphanage on fire! With some help from Joe, Jill and the cowboy rescue the kids, although Joe is almost killed in the process. Due to this, the authorities allow Joe to live and Jill returns to Africa with mighty Joe and her cowboy boy-toy in tow.

This finale is the happy ending meant to make up for the famously sad ending of King Kong. This ending may be more feel-good but it doesn’t come close to the power of Kong’s fall. The corny scene of big Joe rescuing orphans from a burning building was too contrived and didn’t feel like an organic ending to the film. This ending is done somewhat better in the remake.

The remake alters and updates the story, making it a bit more interesting. In this version, little Jill Young’s zoologist mother is killed by an evil poacher named Strasser (Rade Serbedziga) while protecting a baby ape. Jill grows up with her only companion being that baby ape, which she names Joe. Fast forward and Jill (Charlize Theron) is now a full grown hottie, living in a simple mountain community somewhere in Africa. Joe, who’s grown to 15 feet, has become a local legend. A group of conservationists come along, led by Gregg O’Hara (Bill Paxton) to capture animals and put them in wildlife preserves where they’ll be safe from poachers. While O’Hara and pals are capturing lions, mighty Joe arrives to rescue his lion friends. After a tussle, Jill arrives to break it up. O’Hara is ensorcelled by her blonde beauty and offers to relocate Joe to an animal sanctuary in California where he’ll never be hunted. Jill reluctantly agrees.

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Things seem to be going well in the sanctuary until Strasser shows up, harboring an Ahab-like grudge because Joe bit off his finger when they last met 15 years earlier. Strasser gets Joe—who recognizes him—to go on a rampage. After being tranquilized, Joe is sentenced to death. Joe gets loose and is chased across the city by the cops. He is reunited with Jill in an amusement park. Strasser shows up to kill Joe and accidently starts a fire before getting killed himself. When the Ferris Wheel catches fire, it’s up to Joe to rescue the kids. Joe is given a pardon and the public—inspired by some random little boy who offers a dollar—donates money to Jill to take Joe to a bigger, nicer preserve back in Africa, where he can live safely.

The ending works better here because (1) the villain starts the fire rather than it being a random blaze they happen to come across, and (2) there were no firiggin’ orphans! Yes, some kids had to be rescued but at least they weren’t orphaned kids. In fact, several things are done better in the remake because they’re less coincidental and arbitrary. For instance, instead of three random drunk guys driving poor Joe into a frenzy, the remake had the villain be the guy who causes Joe to go postal.

The cast and characters of the original 1949 film were mostly bland, with the exception of Robert Armstrong as Max O’Hara. Jill (Moore) is a generic good-girl, played by an inexperienced actress. Cowboy Gregg is a one-dimensional character portrayed by actor Ben Johnson who had no idea what to do with the part, other than to smile and play the good guy. In the new version, Jill has a more compelling backstory and Theron plays her as a more fleshed out character. Her looks don’t hurt, either. She and Paxton have better chemistry together than Moore and Johnson did.

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Paxton’s O’Hara economically combines the two characters from the 1948 film into one guy, who serves as both the love interest and the person who motivates Jill to take Joe away from his African home. Whereas the first O’Hara, as played by Armstrong, starts as just a greedy guy who finally has a change of heart, the new O’Hara has essentially good intentions from the beginning. So Paxton’s O’Hara character is more interesting than Johnson’s cowboy Greg but not as much fun to watch as Armstrong’s shifty Max O’Hara.

The two films seem to come at the material from different angles. The new film has a definite message with its environmental awareness plot-points, unlike the 1948 film which seemed more interested in reviving the old ‘giant creature on the loose’ plots that Willis O’Brien had worked on previously, like King Kong and the Lost World. Original Joe didn’t seem to even like other animals very much because he repeatedly pounds on lions. In the new version, he rescues them. Depending on how you feel about political messages in films, this is either a good or bad thing for the 1998 version.

Trivia fact: If the first Mighty Joe Young had succeeded, it was supposed to lead to a crossover with the Tarzan franchise, creating a shared universe for both characters. Sadly for Joe, when the big ape fizzled at the box office, the idea was dropped. Would “Tarzan Meets Mighty Joe Young” have been any good or were we spared a cinematic disaster? We’ll never know.

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So which was better? Personally, I enjoy both versions of Joe Young’s story—and not just because we have the same last name—but if a choice had to be made between the two, then the newer version gets the nod. (But only by a slim margin.) The newer film gives the characters stronger backstories and motivations, tightens up the plot by removing the random happenstance (an orphanage on fire!) and has a better lead actress in Oscar winner Charlize Theron. While the original is good and keeps its charm despite its corniness (rescuing those burning orphans) the new one just holds up better as a film.       

That’s all for this week’s look at Hollywood remakes. We’ll be back next week when we’ll look at a comedy remake to see if it makes us laugh as well as the first version.