Mighty Joe Young is as much a follow-up to King Kong as you can get: it was produced by Merian C Cooper, directed by Ernest Schoedsack, written by Ruth Rose, and has effects by Willis O’Brien (though most of the animation was handled by Ray Harryhausen, in his film debut). The story revolves around a giant gorilla taken from its jungle home by an entertainment mogul, where it’s forced to perform onstage with a young, blonde fixation. Things eventually come to a breaking point and the creature escapes, gets hunted by authorities, and has to climb a tall object for his woman. Things align with the former film pretty strongly when you put it that way. Heck, it was even titled with “King Kong” in some territories (including Germany, of course).
The movie is technically far superior to King Kong. The gorilla armature is better-articulated and more expressive, and because they used coarser hair, its fur doesn’t have as bad a ruffling effect as the two previous OB gorillas. The compositing work in the picture is jaw-dropping, with numerous sequences of live-action animals and actors interacting with and transitioning into stop-motion, and it’s mostly seamless. The ending is in two-tone technicolor, engulfing the miniatures and stop-motion puppets in a fire, which is no small feat.
And yet, it’s not as fondly remembered a piece of Americana in anywhere nearly the same regard, and it flopped at the box office. A few possible reasons for this:
- First, even if King Kong did sort of knock-off The Lost World, it still had much more of an air of originality to it. There’s so much Kong in Joe Young‘s cinematic DNA that people may have had a “been there, done that” attitude.
- The movie is very scaled-back. One could say a 12-foot gorilla who fights lions is more realistic than a 50-foot ape battling a T-rex, but it’s not as much a spectacle. There was no quest to retrieve the beast from an unknown island, but instead our heroine simply buys it off of two nonspecific Africans who happen to have it as an infant (I wonder if the pair also had some magic beans?). The original film spurs the imagination much more so because of this.
- While Kong hit in 1933, taking people away from Depression-era doldrums, Joe Young hit in 1949, when America was on the upswing and focused on other things.
That said, the movie is still well-liked by those in the know. The characters are a mixed bag: showman Max O’Hara isn’t quite as amazing as Carl Denham was, but he’s still a nuanced character that’s trying to do right by the people he exploits. Jill Young, the young lady who raised the mighty Joe, is considerably more empowered than Ann Darrow ever was, and likely influenced leading ladies in later Kong flicks. The leading man is a cowboy lasso-expert (likely an element left over from the crew’s scrapped Gwangi project), which is fun enough, though possibly a cliche trope at the time of release.
So, yeah, it’s well-worth a watch, and easily a top-five Kong movie… if it’s a Kong movie, that is.