Jungle fever

Go for the gorilla FX; forget the plot.

A seamless combination of animatronics, computer-generated effects, and a guy in a good old-fashioned gorilla suit, Mighty Joe Young is a thing to behold: Like a junior league King Kong, Joe shakes the trees and quakes the ground as he works his way through the jungle, finally emerging with a roar and beating his chest. At heart, however, this simian is just a big furry kid; his face flashes wonder and anger like a child’s.

Mighty Joe Young

directed by Ron Underwoodstarring Bill Paxton, Charlize Theron

now playing at Meridian, others

He may just be a big, fake gorilla, but Joe has more personality than any human who shares the screen with him. Rugged Bill Paxton, a fine actor when given a part with dimension, barely registers as the globe-trotting field scientist Gregg O’Hara, who first discovers the big guy. He’s the movie’s great white liberal conscience, who also provides color commentary on the side. “Look at the way he moves. Gorgeous.”

Lovely Charlize Theron plays the perky, blue-eyed “Jane of the Jungle” character, Jill Young, Joe’s protector and the orphaned daughter of a Jane Goodall-like researcher. She treats Joe as a cross between a little brother and a pet. When Gregg offers to move Joe from the poacher-infested African hillside to an LA animal preserve, she agrees, albeit reluctantly. These two are supposed to provide the romantic interest, but their chaste courtship—two closed-mouthed kisses—has all the life of a stuffed animal.

Our heroes find themselves up against a villain that would twirl his mustache given half the chance. Ruthless poacher Strasser (Rade Serbedzija) starts the film by making orphans of both Jill and Joe, losing his thumb and finger to baby Joe in the process. Like some neo-Nazi Captain Ahab, Strasser wants to take his revenge out on big Joe’s hide, or more precisely his entire body. “After we sell him off piece by piece, no telling how much we’ll make,” he gloats with such venomous glee you’re sure he performs vivisections for fun.

Mighty Joe Young is a frustrating cartoon of a movie; its dramatic twists depend on the continued stupidity of characters who should know better. But it’s almost worth wading through this claptrap for the finale, Joe clomping through LA on all fours, tossing cars aside, and climbing up a Ferris wheel. It’s not a movie, it’s a theme park, and Joe is the featured attraction. No, he’s the only attraction.