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You Big Ape

[whitespace] Mighty Joe Young
Oscar Material: Special-effects great Rick Baker's rambunctious gorilla, Joe, outacts the rest of the cast in the remake of RKO's classic 'Mighty Joe Young.'

Top banana trumps leading lady

By Richard von Busack

IT USED to be said of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that he gave her grace and she gave him sexiness. Charlize Theron, first among the world's worst actors, gets quite a bit from her hairy co-star in Mighty Joe Young. The giant ape gives Theron feralness. In return, she makes him look smart. Theron plays Jill, whose Dian Fossey-like mom was killed by gorilla poachers, leaving her to be raised in the bush, side by side with her giant gorilla companion, Joe.

Jill and her 18-foot-tall chaperone are flushed out by the arrival of biologist Gregg (Bill Paxton, virile and long-haired), who has come to take blood samples from the local beasts. What was once a secret is soon widely known. The poachers return, seeking to gun down the biggest of all apes, and Jill and Gregg decide to haul Joe to a private animal sanctuary in Southern California. Reacting badly to L.A. and its clumsy human population, the gorilla earns a reputation for rambunctiousness. Meanwhile, a Russian poacher (Rade Sherbedgia) who had his hand mangled by Joe heads to L.A. on an Ahab-style mission of revenge.

If Mighty Joe Young didn't scoot along, the story would seem to be a delaying tactic to pave the way for the climactic rampage. But Joe hardly needs tormentors to get the audience on his side. In an age of extinction, a gorilla finds a theater full of nothing but fans, and Joe is one devastating gorilla. After a lifetime of making quality anthropoids for the screen, creature creator Rick Baker has surpassed even himself. This mahogany-eyed beast, with its heavy head and wise, ancient gaze, moves flawlessly--a lot more smoothly than Theron, for one. Joe's performance is the only one this year that I can wholeheartedly recommend for an Oscar. Chased through the concrete-lined L.A. River by helicopters with floodlights, he is a heart-wrenching fugitive from justice. Let loose on Hollywood Boulevard, he shows a knack for physical comedy, crunching a car into scrap with his bare hands as he tries to shut up a bleating car alarm. Some loitering kids on a bus bench cheer him on--it was smart to have onlookers more delighted than terrified by the escaped gorilla. The filmmakers certainly know their Hollywood Boulevard.

Unfortunately, the finish is schmaltzy--what with Theron's amateurish sobbing over her pet. Director Ron Underwood attempts an ending in all three veins, one by one: unhappy, heroic, happy. I have contradictory feelings about this kind of manipulativeness. On the one hand, a good, strong monkey-dies-everybody-cries ending helps build the character of kids; on the other hand, most of these kids will get character beaten into them by life by the time they reach adulthood. The last spoken words in Mighty Joe Young are "a legend never dies." But dying, or at least finality, is a part of legend--and also legendary films. Still, what an ape!

(P.S.: In the tent-party scene, an older couple is pointed out for our attention. The elder man is Ray Harryhausen himself, animator on the 1949 original Mighty Joe Young. His date is Terry Moore, the lead in that version. Nice to see them, nicer even to have the RKO radio-tower logo back on a new film for the first time for 38 years.)

Mighty Joe Young (PG; 114 min.), directed by Ron Underwood, written by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner, based on a screenplay by Ruth Rose and a story by Merian C. Cooper and starring Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton.

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From the December 31, 1998-January 6, 1999 issue of Metro.

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