Mighty Joe Young is more than just an imitation of King Kong. I always assumed it was, but it was actually made by the exact same production team. Mighty Joe Young was distributed by RKO Pictures, directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack, produced by Merian C. Cooper, stars Robert Armstrong, and was even written by Son of Kong screenwriter Ruth Rose. The similarities are undeniable, but Mr. Joseph Young is perfectly lovable all on his own. Unlike Kong, it was beauty domesticated the beast. Jill Young is an adorable caucasian girl living in Africa with her father. One day she adopts a baby gorilla from African locals.
12 years later, the ape named Joe Young becomes larger than an average gorilla, but significantly smaller than King Kong. Stop-motion artist Willis O’Brien lent his assistance, but all animation was handled by his legendary protégé Ray Harryhausen. Despite being his first film, Joe Young is so charming that the movie won a much deserved Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Joe only attacks when provoked, but luckily he has Jill to calm him down. “Beautiful Dreamer” is especially calming for him. Terry Moore is a feisty leading lady who’s very different from Ann Darrow. Unlike Kong, Joe’s chance for fame isn’t forced upon him.
Rodeo performer Ben Johnson plays the friendly Gregg who helps convince Jill to bring Joe to Hollywood. Armstrong’s Max O’Hara is similar to Carl Denham, but he’s an honest nightclub owner who comes around near the end. Joe performs on stage until his act becomes increasingly humiliating. A bunch of idiots get him drunk and he goes on a rampage. The effects are especially impressive when Joe tosses around actual lions. Even more impressive is a red filter climax where Joe heroically saves orphans from a burning building. Unlike Kong, everyone cares enough to take Joe back where he belongs. Mighty Joe Young is a refreshing giant ape movie with a heartwarming payoff.