Jill Young (Lora Lee Michel) is a little girl living with her father in Africa. Two natives are walking by her house with a basket. When Jill looks in the basket she sees a baby gorilla. She immediately falls in love with it and wants to buy it. Her father is out in the fields so she gathers up some change a few trinkets and her father’s big flashlight. She trades everything with the two men for the gorilla. She names it Joe.
Twelve years later Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong) is in Africa looking for wild animals to feature in the new nightclub he plans on opening in Hollywood. He hired some cowboys to rope them and put them in cages. Why cowboys? Because it’s cool. His head cowboy is Gregg (Ben Johnson). Gregg and his team have already caught a number of lions for Max. They are about ready to pack everything up and head back home when a giant gorilla comes into camp investigating the cages. When one of the lions bites him he goes on a rampage. The cowboys try to rope him for Max. When Joe is about to get the best of them all a young woman comes into the clearing furious at the men that are harassing her friend. Jill Young (Terry Moore) calms Joe down and takes him away.
O’Hara is determined to get Joe for his nightclub. Using Gregg as a go-between to calm her down O’Hara eventually talks her into coming to Hollywood and bringing Joe with her. At first everything is exciting and new. Joe is a big hit and O’Hara is happy. Gregg falls in love with Jill and becomes friends with Joe. But Joe is put in a cage every night and it is affecting his spirit. Growing listless and not eating to the point that Jill is concerned. She wants to take Joe back to Africa where he belongs. For awhile O’Hara talks her out of it but Joe is getting worse.
One night while Joe is in his cage he gets harassed by three drunks. One drunk burns him with his lighter setting Joe off. He breaks out of his cage and goes on a rampage destroying the nightclub and setting the lions free. Police shoot the lions while Jill manages to get Joe back in his cage. The courts decide that Joe is a menace and musts be shot. Jill wants to take him back to Africa but is denied. The court order must be complied with. Joe must die. O’Hara, now realizing that Joe belongs in the jungle, has a plan.
“Mighty Joe Young” was released in 1949 and was directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack. It is an adventure fantasy movie. A lot of the people that were involved with “King Kong” 1933 also worked on “Joe Young”. Although Willis O’Brien was the head animator for the film, Ray Harryhausen did somewhere around eighty to ninety percent of the animation sequences.
The only real gorilla in the film is the baby gorilla in the beginning. The lions on the other hand are both animated and real lions. Some of the scenes with the lions are dangerous and terrifying. Not just for the people but for the lions as well. Filmed over thirty years before PETA was created some of the real lions were subject to some unethical treatment. Especially the lions in the nightclub scene. Some lions were dropped onto tables and tossed across the room. Yes, a lot of the lion action was animated, but not all of it.
The language spoken by the African natives at the beginning of the film was made up by screenwriter Ruth Rose. The censorship board, however, still required her to produce a translation so they could be assured there was no offensive "language" in the film. Apparently she made that up too. This wasn’t something new for her. She had had to do the same for the native language in “King Kong” 16 years earlier.
The movie is a wonderful use of animation. Granted some of the back screens look like back screens but for 1949 it was still impressive. The film was a combination of heart pumping fear and the heartwarming bond between Jill and Joe. Both emotions are a tribute to not only Harryhausen’s work, both in the action scenes and in the expressions in Joe’s face, but the wonderful script by Ruth Rose. The relationship between Jill and Joe is what makes Joe even more sympathetic than King Kong. The combination of fear and love are the main reasons it’s a great film.