Random Film of the Day*: Mighty Joe Young

*For the next week or so, I’m going to add a random film the great Ray Harryhausen worked on. The legendary special effects MASTER passed away on May 7, 2013 at age 92 in London and yes, the film world has lost a true giant as well as a fine and talented gentleman…

Mighty Joe Young posterWith Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1949 film Mighty Joe Young, stop motion animation fans saw the torch passed from the past master of the technique, Willis O’Brien to his willing, eager and more than able apprentice (and future master), Ray Harryhausen. Where 1925’s startling The Lost World and 1933’s epic King Kong helped pioneer stop motion (and its more comedic sequel, Son of Kong added a neat dinosaur chase scene to the list of O’Brien’s classic scenes), Mighty Joe Young was pretty much Harryhausen’s film from start to finish.

O’Brien hired Ray as an assistant animator, but based on different accounts, ended up letting the young man handle the bulk of the actual animation while he supervised the technical aspect of the special effects. While the film’s story was provided by King Kong co-writer/co-creator Merian C. Cooper and has some direct thematic resemblances to that earlier film (to the point were some less astute viewers think it’s an actual Kong sequel), Joe’s smaller size, demeanor and human-like qualities were greatly enhanced by stellar animation, some fantastic action scenes and a really great use of humor throughout that makes it nowhere as dark as Kong, nor as silly as its rushed into theaters sequel…

Granted, the film does initially hit you over the head with a gigantic saccharine club in its early scenes as little Jill Young, an American girl living in Tanzania, trades her father’s big flashlight and some trinkets for a “cute” baby gorilla (D’awwww!). Naturally, daddy returns from his trip and freaks the hell out when he sees the new baby, telling Jill it needs to be gotten rid of because it will be dangerous when it grows older. Little Jill is distraught and promises Daddy Dearest she’ll take care of “Joe” and is pretty adamant at stating this (well, in a “Daddy can’t refuse because it’ll kill the rest of the movie” way). Flash forward a few years, Jill is a now a super-energetic cutie (played by Terry Moore), Joe is a giant 12 feet tall (more or less) and some more Americans enter the picture on the hunt for something colossal to wow paying customers back home in their nightclub show.

After a bit of convincing of Jill (and A stubborn Joe, who gets animated in some fantastic and humorous bits), the men convince Jill to make the move with Joe to Hollywood and the big time. Of course, you just KNOW that things will go south from there, but it’s not the tragedy Kong turned out to be at all. The nightclub scenes are genuinely funny and intentionally silly, showcasing the absurdity of show business in the days before animals were monitored for care and proper handling methods. Joe manages to get drunk (thanks to some dope who sneaks backstage), trashes the nightclub and splits the scene leaving a ton of damage and some beaten up wild animals and beefy strongmen (don’t ask – just watch the film and it’s all explained).

There’s a great escape with Joe bundled into the back of a panel truck that leads to the film’s animation triumph where Joe goes from goat to hero thanks to a burning orphanage. I recall seeing this film for the first time as a kid and fully believing that the filmmakers set fire to a house packed with screaming kids, set an ape loose and filmed the results. Yeah, I was a gullible kid, so sue me. Or perhaps it was Harryhausen’s amazing work in animating the scene, the masterful editing of the sequence and the resolution which probably made those who saw the film and appreciated it gasp and cheer in theaters. I’ve read that the film was poorly received back in 1949 for some reason, but it also ended up winning O’Brien an Oscar in 1950, so at least the Academy liked what they saw.

Perhaps post-war audiences weren’t quite ready for such a fantasy that fell a few short years before the paranoia of a nuclear-armed world drove them back into the theaters for less realistic (yet somehow more believable in their irradiated gigantic-ism) monster flicks. Or perhaps the giant ape film no longer has the draw it did back in 1933 thanks to gorilla suits being overused badly in comedies and other fantasy or horror films of the era. Of course, these days Mighty Joe Young is seen as a true classic and Harryhausen’s debut as the soon to be master of his own worlds for over thirty more years.

Oh, don’t confuse this with the well-intentioned but needless 1998 Disney remake with the same title. Yes, you get a great ape costume, some digital effects and an nice Ray Harryhausen cameo, but the tone and all-star casting make it more of a bigger-budgeted vanity project you’ll see once and probably never again. Joe works best in his original form and format, moved by the master’s hands and more moving as a result…

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