Movie Review: Mighty Joe Young

We’re holding a King Kong Kountdown to the December 14 release of Peter Jackson’s epic remake. Today we review the original Mighty Joe Young, which involved several of the people responsible for the original King Kong. It’s not surprising, then, that this 1949 film should resemble its famous predecessor. However, the writers, director, and producers did not simply ape their memorable tale. Joe proves a more touching and thoughtful giant ape than Kong. The story, while less exciting than Kong‘s, holds up despite its period hokiness. Indeed, Walt Disney remade the film in 1998; this gorilla suits a family audience.

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack

Written by Ruth Rose and Merian C. Cooper


Terry Moore as Jill Young
Robert Armstrong as Max O’Hara
Ben Johnson as Gregg
Frank McHugh as Windy
Douglas Fowley as Jones


The plot is not complicated. A little girl growing up in Africa adopts a baby gorilla as a pet; for no particular reason, he grows up to be a giant. Adventurer and nightclub owner Max O’Hara encounters Joe while on safari. This character, who resembles Carl Denham so entirely that Robert Armstrong might as well be playing the same man, wants the giant ape brought to America, where he will become the star attraction in an exotically-themed hot spot.

The exploitation which Joe faces finally riles the beast, and he goes on a rampage in the city. Despite Jill’s pleas, authorities intend to kill him. The gorilla’s natural goodness asserts itself when he encounters a burning orphanage. Joe rescues the children, but will he be able to save his own life?

High Point:

Although they’re not the best work of either man, these dated special effects still captivate. Joe has a believable personality, and the old-style stop-motion animation has a charm lacking in the more sophisticated and realistic effects possible today. Mighty Joe Young may be a second banana to King Kong, but it remains a quaint piece of entertainment.

Willis O’Brien’s days as Hollywood’s chief monster effects man were coming to an end in 1949; he would only make three more films using animated models, and finish his career, sadly, overseeing a 1960 slurpasaurus remake of The Lost World. He passes the torch in this film to Ray Harryhausen, who would develop and refine O’Brien’s techniques.

Low Point:

The film features a curious dead point. With nothing to do after an intense moment, Joe, sits and drums his fingers. I suppose the filmmakers were reminding us of and further developing Joe’s goofy charm, but he comes off looking like a bored actor between takes.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6. The film basically softens King Kong.

Effects: 5/6.

Story: 4/6.

Acting: 4/6. It’s stylized stuff, typical of the Hollywood’s Golden Age, but it holds up.

Production: 5/6 This film features some spectacular set pieces and (for its time) strong effects.

Emotional Response: 4/6

Overall: 5/6.

In total, Mighty Joe Young receives 30/42

2 replies on “Movie Review: Mighty Joe Young”

  1. Who does Robert Armstrong play?
    So who does Robert Armstrong play? You forgot to mention in the review header.


    • Re: Who does Robert Armstrong play?

      That’s what I get for posting before I’ve had my coffee. It’s there now. Basically, though, it’s Denham (his Kong character) under another name.

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