1949’s “Mighty Joe Young” is almost a parallel universe retelling of “King Kong” except with half the menace and a lot more innocence. Rather than an overgrown ape being exposed to the cruelty of humanity dying for a woman, we’re given an equally touching tale of an overgrown ape and his loyal female caretaker. With beautiful and often fluid stop motion by Ray Harryhausen, “Mighty Joe Young” tells the story of a girl named Jill Young who decides to buy a baby ape from a pair of traders. Anxious to prove to her father she can manage a pet, years later her pet Joe transforms in to a fiercely protective overgrown ape who isn’t very kind of poachers and hunters. When hunters Max and Gregg go to Africa to catch animals to use for their show, Joe Young appears attempting to break the animals free and begins fighting off the intruders.
They meet Jill Young, the owner of a ranch in the African wilderness who keeps Joe nearby, and is desperate to save the ranch. Max and sidekick Gregg manage to convince her to bring Joe to the big city to perform for crowds, which will allow Jill to become a big star and to save her home. But before long the novelty wears off for Joe, who finds a lot of difficulty with human cruelty and disrespect. “Mighty Joe Young” is kind of slim on narrative, but is a very good and raucous spectacle that puts Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien’s excellent animation on full display. Joe Young is a very lifelike and expressive protagonist who has a big heart, but is the victim of circumstances.
This involves being fed liquor by reckless partiers and attacked by visitors who show little regard for the creature’s self respect. “Mighty Joe Young” is as much a sweet tale of a woman and her loyal beast, as it is an alternate take on “King Kong.” The relationship between Jill and Joe allows for a ton of sweet moments, and Terry Moore gives a spirited turn as the heroine. She more than makes up for co-star Ben Johnson who isn’t just a boring hero, but gives a stiff performance that threatens to bring the movie down time and time again. That said, “Mighty Joe Young” is a special kind of monster movie with some great action scene, including the climactic orphanage sequence, and Joe’s battle with a group of strong men during a show. It works as a neat companion to “King Kong.”