Mighty Joe Young Lives Large on DVD

Charlize Theron, Bill Paxton, David Paymer, Regina King, Rade Sherbedgia, Peter Firth. Directed by Ron Underwood. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (letterbox). Dolby Digital 5.1. 114 minutes. 1998. Walt Disney 16538. PG. $24.98.

Meet Mighty Joe Young, the cuddly ape. He's 15 feet tall, a pack of fun, and a peck of trouble. Sounds utterly cloying. Oddly enough, it isn't. This remake of the 1949 film is a delightful sleeper, a beguiling fairy tale drenched in spectacular color. The well-crafted screenplay puts the flimsy, most recent Star Wars effort to shame, and the ape—no offense, big guy—is just an outsized teddy bear who taps into the credulous kid in all of us.

Mighty Joe, now as in the original, is a kinder, gentler King Kong. Even as a half-pint ape growing up in Central Africa, Joe shows signs of abnormal physical development: He's going to be the biggest ape in the jungle. Ever. One of his closest childhood chums is a little girl named Jill Young, whose mother, a scientist, is studying primate behavior. Then, in one awful moment in the jungle darkness, Joe's mother is killed by poachers, and Jill's mom, in an attempt to save the little one, is mortally wounded by the same dastardly bunch. Jill promises her dying mother that she'll look after Joe.

Flash forward to Jill (Charlize Theron) in young womanhood. Enter zoologist Gregg O'Hara (Bill Paxton). By now Jill is wondering how to protect her prodigious ward from the ever-present poachers. Gregg helps her find the answer: move him to the safety of civilization and a wild-animal research preserve. Of course, civilization being what it is, things get completely out of hand, and so does Joe. But I'm telling too much.

I add only that Mighty Joe, who loves to play hide and seek, is an animatronic wonder, that the jungle vistas are enchanting, the soundtrack matches the scenery in its splendor, and that Joe takes a hard fall to prove that big is good. Moreover, it could happen.