Mighty Ray Harryhausen

Prior to the rush of giant dinosaurs and insects in 1950s-era cinema came a gentler take on the mega-gorilla tale. Mighty Joe Young is a reunion film for much of the key background players from King Kong, a charming send-off to the idea bolstered by staggering stop motion animation work from Ray Harryhausen.

Producer Merian C. Cooper appears to parody himself, casting Robert Armstrong (again) as a Hollywood go-getter who wrangles himself a sizable ape (this time from Africa) in a comically overplayed role which bites at Cooper’s own wild, real world charms. Armstrong’s Max O’Hara is a touch innocent even if he exploits a young orphan girl and her (sometimes) friendly beast. He doesn’t call for the planes as Joe sprints from his confines; he seeks a solution to save the emotional critter who happens to be a mean drunk.

Much of Mighty Joe Young has the charm which Son of Kong hurriedly threw away. Joe could have been Kong’s lowly infant had the script taken such a turn. Although the sizable simian is taken into civilization to perform a stage show in a plot retread, the antics are refreshingly clever and different.

The film is glowing with vibrant characters – cowboys, showmen, drunks, and wrestlers. While Ben Johnson is devoid of personality as the male lead to Terry Moore’s naive Jill Young, Armstrong was still a loud, energetic, and charismatic figure. He’s a showman with class.

In terms of raw performance, few stop motion creatures can match Joe.

More so, the feature is all Joe, expressive and convincing as the adventure threads between African landscapes, night clubs, and a caged stupor. While most of Harryhauen’s creations existed for their ferocity (waiting to be decked by a hero or mauled by cavemen) Joe’s emotions spread across the gamut. He’s happy, somber, angry, confused, content, and totally a delight. In terms of raw performance, few stop motion creatures can match Joe. It may be Harryhausen’s smoothest work too; at times, Joe’s motions feel filmed live on set. The centerpiece – a tremendous collapse of O’Hara’s club – is scintillating. Additional character work from co-animator Pete Petersen is equally dazzling.

Mighty Joe Young builds to an extended finale with a slew of energy, turning from a chase sequence into a dazzling bit of cinematic showmanship as an orphanage is set aflame. It’s a touch disjointed – a bevy of tension is thrown out while the heroes stop to get air in a tire (?) and the orphanage is a jarring arbitrary inclusion – but the payoff is genuine. It makes heroes out of everyone.

From King Kong, Joe becomes an emotional role reversal. Like Kong, Joe is unwillingly removed from home. He’s just confused, asking for audience empathy. Mighty Joe Young is among the softest monster-on-the-loose pictures ever made, even if the film barely deserves the connotation. Joe isn’t a monster. He’s just Joe. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Movie]

Superb detail on the fur @ 59:13

Warner gives A class treatment to Mighty Joe Young, producing a Blu-ray scanned at excellent resolution. The clarity afforded to the presentation by this release is stunning. The film rolls by with superb fidelity and definition. Jungle scenery is preserved. Matte paintings can be seen down to their brush strokes. Joe’s hair has never been seen in the home with this much precision.

Also critical is gray scale, propped up by exquisite highlights. By the finale, the depth becomes paramount through a nighttime chase in the city’s outskirts. Black level density is flawless and rich. Better still, Joe’s dark fur stands out. Shadow delineation is on point.

Of note is the pale red tint given to the closing act, added in the mid ’80s and preserved as such ever since. While crude, it’s an interesting attempt to give the feature a dose of drama. However, the depth dissipates. The artificial redness wipes the contrast and does lessen the overall impact of the images.

Also of concern is compression. Grain is rightfully preserved but digitization has given the materials a watercolor-like effect in motion. Son of Kong shares the look. Gradients are poorly separated and edges show an unusual roughness. End results carry the appearance of digital clean-up tools being over aggressive. It’s unlikely to be the encode which pushes bitrates into the 30 Mbps range at all times. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Video]

DTS-HD encoding adds little to the aged audio, coming from the edge of the 1940s. Dialog features an audible fade and the score sounds rough, lacking precision. The mono work has clearly done some aging.

It’s not an audible disaster, rather to par for the era and an unremarkable restoration. Highs are faded and lows muffled. Keep expectations appropriately mild. Mighty Joe Young sounds as if it’s pre-1950, although the other films in this Special Effects Collection Blu-ray set trump this one, even the earliest offering. [xrr rating=3/5 label=Audio]

Extras match the DVD release from 2005. That means a great commentary featuring Ray Harryhausen, visual effects artist Ken Ralston, and Terry Young. A detailed chat between Harryhausen and the family effects team, the Chiodo Brothers, takes viewers through Harryhausen’s full career (22:52). A separate feature details the remains of Joe’s armature, an exacting interview, again with Harryhausen and the Chiodo Brothers (11:57). [xrr rating=3/5 label=Extras]


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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