Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

  When working in the realm of special effects there is a delicate balance of artistry and spectacle. If the effect is not believable then audiences will complain of the shoddy production values of the feature they are watching, but a film that is all spectacle might easily bore or deaden an audience to what a movie has to offer. A balance between substance and showmanship must be struck. Mighty Joe Young could have easily devolved into cuteness, relying on the audience's appetite for cheap thrills and weakness for animal tricks but none of the cast and crew would let the production sink so low.
  Practically the entire crew from King Kong is back. Merian Cooper provided the story and produced the picture. Ruth Rose, the primary screenwriter for King Kong, is back again to write the screenplay to the story. Willis O'Brien's team is also back with one addition, a very young Ray Harryhausen no older than twenty two and already responsible for a majority of the film's stop motion scenes. And finally Ernest B. Schoedsack is back as director, and unknown to many outside of the production Schoedsack had directed the entire movie practically blind. 
  As for the cast Robert Armstrong returns again as yet another Merian C. Cooper type character, Max O'Hara, who goes to Africa looking for new acts for a club he is opening up in Los Angeles. Whereas in his previous roles for Cooper and Schoedsack, Robert Armstrong had played a character that stomped through uncharted jungles looking for adventure the O'Hara character is more comical and a bit devious.
  While in Africa, O'Hara and his cowboys run into Joseph Young, a very large and irate gorilla. Although towering over every character in the movie Joe is quite childlike and looks to his friend Jill Young, played by Terry Moore, to get him out of trouble. The majority of the story is really about the friendship between Jill and Joe Young. They act like siblings with one another, but it's obvious that Jill plays mother to Joe on more than one occasion. The movie goes out of its way to not label Jill as Joe's owner, but rather show us that each looks at the other as an equal.
  Although the lure of money and attention lures Jill to sign O'Hara's contract to be part of his nightclub show, it is not so easy to condemn her for her actions. She has lived on her father's farm in Africa all her life, and the very first scene where we are introduced to her character she purchases Joe so that she can have a friend to play with. Twelve years later though when O'Hara arrives Joe has grown up and now Jill, an adult woman, is starved for human attention. With the arrival of Gregg, played by Ben Johnson, her attention starts to splinter away from Joe. As she matures her friendship with Joe evolves into that of mother and child while her friendship with Gregg becomes that of man and woman.
  Joe Young is made believable with the help of Ray Harryhausen who creates a character that moves like a gorilla, but emotes like a human. Harryhausen built on Willis O'Brien's work by putting more attention on facial gestures. Joe, unlike Kong, is capable of much more complicated facial gestures. Throughout the film Joe gets angry, drunk, happy, hungry, tired, sad, and this is all expressed through facial expressions.
  As pure entertainment Mighty Joe Young delivers in every way, but underneath the adventure story is a very interesting study of a friendship not between a pet owner and her pet but of a child and her playmate. As Jill and Joe grow older you know that they will always be friends, not because that is what the story tells you, but because you can't imagine either of them apart from the other. Their friendship is what pulls the entire movie together and without that all you have is spectacle.

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