The original 1949 Mighty Joe Young was a straight King Kong rip-off, with less plot and slightly better special effects. This '90s remake is a more kiddy- friendly version in everything but running time. The ape is treated as a big loveable pet and the African jungle a picturesque paradise.
Unsurprisingly, the actors take second place to the effects; it's hard to compete with a 15-foot-tall banana-chomper. Theron does her best in a thankless part, although her chief character trait is the ability to wear as few clothes as possible in entirely unsuitable surroundings: she obviously has mosquito-proof skin. But Theron, however pretty, is not enough to sustain even the most smitten male's interest.
Paxton brings an almost trademark blankness to his zoologist role, all too aware that he's acting against a fake furball. The monkey-bothering villains, meanwhile, are just caricature goons.
If Mighty Joe Young had managed to combine either humour or realism with any of the above it might have made passable entertainment. But the gorilla doesn't look or behave like the real thing (no, they don't play hide-and-seek or beat their chests); the serious business of poaching becomes an easily covered-up sideline for the money-hungry; and any hint of humour is quashed at every turn.
In the original version, Joe was exploited by a theatrical manager and made to perform circus tricks. In this, he's exploited by one of the most unlikely sanctuaries ever, whose dictum is to kill anything (however rare) if it steps out of line, or stuff it in the smallest, most unnatural environment possible.
There's no denying the cinematic appeal of a gigantic ape to younger children, but if you're not a fan of special effects over plot, character and even the vaguest attempt at realism, forget it.
Those under 10 may love Joe, but adults will find him less appealing. Theron almost saves the day, until she flounders under the weight of poor dialogue, dull direction and a role that seems to value her make-up over her acting.