Mighty Joe Young involved several of the people responsible for the original King Kong. It's not surprising, then, that this 1949 film should resemble its famous predecessor. However, the writers, director, and producers did not simply ape their memorable tale. Joe proves a more touching and thoughtful giant ape than Kong. The story, while less exciting than Kong's, holds up despite its period hokiness. Indeed, Walt Disney remade the film in 1998; this gorilla suits a family audience.
The plot is not complicated. A little girl growing up in Africa adopts a baby gorilla as a pet; for no particular reason, he grows up to be a giant. Adventurer and nightclub owner Max O'Hara encounters Joe while on safari. This character, who resembles Carl Denham so entirely that Robert Armstrong might as well be playing the same man, wants the giant ape brought to America, where he will become the star attraction in an exotically-themed hot spot.
The exploitation which Joe faces finally riles the beast, and he goes on a rampage in the city. Despite Jill's pleas, authorities intend to kill him. The gorilla's natural goodness asserts itself when he encounters a burning orphanage. Joe rescues the children, but we’re left wondering if he will be able to save himself.
Willis O'Brien's days as Hollywood's chief monster effects man were coming to an end in 1949; he would only make three more films using animated models, and finish his career, sadly, overseeing a 1960 slurpasaurus remake of The Lost World. He passes the torch in this film to Ray Harryhausen, who would develop and refine O'Brien's techniques.
Although they're not the best work of either man, these dated special effects still captivate. Joe has a believable personality, and the old-style stop-motion animation has a charm lacking in the more sophisticated and realistic effects possible today. Mighty Joe Young may be a second banana to King Kong, but it remains a quaint piece of entertainment.
Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack
Writers: Merian C. Cooper, Ruth Rose
Special effects: Willis O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen
Terry Moore...Jill Young
Robert Armstrong...Max O'Hara
Regis Toomey...John Young
Lora Lee Michel...Young Jill Young