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Thoroughly Modern Mighty Joe

Making a big gorilla even more lovable than his 1949 ancestor is no simple job for all involved.

November 08, 1998|KATHLEEN CRAUGHWELL | Kathleen Craughwell is a Times staff writer

Make no mistake about it; Joe is the star of this show.

Oh sure, that's "Titanic" star Bill Paxton who's wheeling around the set in a golf cart. And yes, that's up-and-coming actress Charlize Theron ("Devil's Advocate") hanging out at the crafts service table cracking Elvis jokes with crew members. But it's Joe, or "Big Joe" as he's known around the set, who gets all the attention between takes.

Three attractive young women in jeans and tank tops rush up to Joe when the first assistant director yells "Cut." One of them grooms his beard with a long-handled comb. Another brushes his thick chest hair. The third moistens Joe's lips with K-Y lubrication jelly--a must when your lips and tongue are made of latex.

Big Joe, you see, is a 15-foot animatronic gorilla, and the title character in Disney's remake of the RKO B-movie classic "Mighty Joe Young."

The original film is about a giant mountain gorilla and his caretaker Jill (ingenue Terry Moore in the original), who are lured from their bucolic home in Africa to perform in a Hollywood nightclub, where Joe is put on display, jeered at and kept in a cage. It's being updated for the 1990s.

In fact, the famous scene of Joe holding up a piano with Moore playing "Beautiful Dreamer" won't be in the remake. Says producer Ted Hartley: "That's something that everybody remembers; it's anchored in the mind. But the whole idea of having a one-of-a-kind [gorilla] put in a nightclub and holding up a piano in the 1990s is totally unacceptable."

In the remake, both Joe and Jill (Theron) are orphaned in Africa on the same night. Jill's mother is a Dian Fossey-like researcher who is killed by poachers, along with baby Joe's mother. Ten years later, zoologist Gregg Johnson (Paxton) discovers the giant gorilla (normally mountain gorillas grow to be 6 feet tall) and persuades Jill that for both her and Joe's safety, they should move Joe to a conservancy for endangered species in California.

"The challenge of working on a film like this, where I have a lot of admiration for the original, is to create the kind of moving experience for the audience that I had when I first saw 'Mighty Joe Young'--where you care so much about this gorilla," says director Ron Underwood ("City Slickers," "Heart and Souls"). "And in that film, on a technical level, what they achieved was really remarkable. It won the Academy Award for best special effects."

This production, however, has the benefit of technologies unimaginable in 1949.

Joe, the latest creation by makeup artist Rick Baker, who also made the gorillas for "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" and "Gorillas in the Mist," may be just a mass of intricate machinery covered in a thick coat of horse and yak hair. But when Baker's team of puppeteers starts to rouse the beast for his next take, he truly looks alive.

At 2 a.m. on a hot summer night in Playa del Rey, in the same airplane hanger where Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose was built, Joe looks a little sleepy, as do some of the others. He blinks his great brown eyes and stretches his jaw. He flares his nostrils, furrows his brow and smacks and puckers his lips.

In the scene being rehearsed and then filmed, Joe has just been sedated and is behind bars after creating havoc at a black-tie benefit dinner at the conservancy. His future looks grim, and Jill, Gregg and a veterinarian played by Regina King ("Jerry Maguire") are trying to break him out of his lockup. In this short scene, Joe's expressions range from sulkiness at being locked up, to gentleness and affection when he sees Jill, to anger when a security guard tries to foil their escape. He's almost, well, human.

"I really didn't want to do another gorilla movie because when I did 'Gorillas in the Mist,' I thought I did the best suits you can do," says Baker. "But I was always fond of 'Mighty Joe Young,' and I played King Kong in the Dino De Laurentiis 'King Kong' back in 1975, and I thought it would be interesting to do the two giant gorilla movie remakes. I got some of my crew members together and we watched a laserdisc of 'Gorillas in the Mist,' and there were just enough things I thought we could improve upon.

"One of the things were the eyes. Usually eyes for mechanical heads are complete spheres because it's a lot easier to make the eyelid blink, but real eyes have a corneal bulge."

So Baker, who has won five Oscars (most recently for "Men in Black"), took the job so that he could perfect the corneal bulge of a make-believe gorilla?

Well, yes. "We worked for months just making the eyes themselves. They're actually better-made than the artificial eyes that they make for people. . . . We actually sculpted the iris and pupil area and cast a dimensional piece. It was a lot of work, but so much of the soul is in the eyes."

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