The Joe of the title is a giant gorilla. Not quite King Kong sized, he's still large enough to ignite fear in the hearts of the superstitious, and greed in the hearts of evil poachers. But Joe isn't a monster, he's just a misunderstood animal. His protector is the beautiful Jill Young (Charlize Theron), who was orphaned at the same time as Joe when her mother, renknowned primatologist Dr. Ruth Young (Linda Purl), ran afoul of the poacher Strasser (Rade Serbedzija).
But, despite her best efforts, Jill can't keep Joe a secret from the world. People like Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton) keep popping up. Gregg works at an animal preserve outside of Los Angeles, and has come to the wilds of Africa in search of a legend: Joe. Gregg offers to give the big monkey a home in L.A.. But what is the best thing for Joe? To stay home, and be hunted...or to live in a cage (a safe cage, but a cage nonetheless).
But, wherever Joe goes, there will be danger. Strasser is still around (now running an animal preserve of his own, where he secretly butchers endangered species), and still bears a personal grudge against the giant ape. He makes it his mission to find and kill Joe (and, of course, to sell his remains for a huge profit), wherever he is.
Mighty Joe Young himself is the film's greatest achievement. As a special effect, he is truly a marvel. He is so realistic, in fact, that he's often more believable than the human actors in the film. That said, his character is far from perfect...in fact, it is quite variable. At times, he's merely a brute animal, little more than a monster. But, when the screenplay requires it, his IQ shoots up a hundredfold, and he becomes a hairy Einstein, amused at the foolish antics of the puny humans around him.
Bill Paxton and Charlize Theron are forced to play second banana to the great ape, and neither of them show top form here. They have both shown much more skill in prior roles. Here, their characters are flat and uninteresting, and they don't seem to put much effort into making them unique. They're both aware that this is the gorilla's movie, and they're just along for the ride.
The film, though advertised as the traditional Disney animal flick, is slightly more violent than one might expect. The film is, after all, about a monstrously giant ape. Still, though a few scenes might be a bit intense for younger children, older kids should get a kick out of Joe, and probably won't care that the rest of the film is threadbare.
You can't expect the world from a gorilla movie. But, usually you can expect more than just the gorilla. Luckily, Mighty Joe's special effects wizardry will be appreciated just as well on the small screen as the big.
[PG - some menacing action violence and mild language] (Disney)