Disney ape for remake

The industry is taking a fresh approach to old corn, and a prime example is the primate melodrama “Mighty Joe Young.” The Walt Disney Co. next summer will launch a giant-size marketing blitz tied to a remake of the tale of a 15-foot-tall lovable gorilla.

The 1949 black-and-white pic — starring a friendlier version of King Kong — featured stop-motion animation, with the movements of the gorilla created in a painstaking process by moving a model one frame at a time. It earned an Oscar for those special effects, which were state-of-the-art. However, Disney plans to use elaborate models, CGI animation and even computer-generated fur.

In the original, the big ape goes berserk when brought from the jungles of Africa to become a nightclub attraction in Hollywood. The new version is about a 21-year-old woman living in an African jungle who is persuaded to bring the gorilla she has tamed to an animal preserve in the U.S. But the ape eventually escapes and rampages through Los Angeles, as she and a zoologist rush to save its life.

“People’s attitudes have changed in 40 years,” says Ted Hartley, who produces “Mighty Joe” with Tom Jacobson. “The idea of bringing a gigantic animal to a nightclub is kind of ludicrous now. People don’t want to see them exploited.”

In writing the new “Mighty Joe,” the scribes did draw on the original for ideas for key plot points. “The advantage was, it was a clear concept,” Hartley said. “The story was clear. We knew what the characters were. … Any time we get into trouble, we go back to the original.”

Producers also have at their fingertips plot outlines, in theory saving them the cost of putting team after team of writers on a project. (Witness the dozens who worked on a script for “The Flintstones.”) “Basically, the same storyline holds,” says Hartley, chairman of RKO Pictures. “These are themes that in many cases have been tested over 30, 40 years. And you have already gone through the studio development process.”

There is one other difference between the ’49 and ’98 versions. The makers of the first film didn’t even think of Happy Meals. Disney plans much more for the high-budgeted pic, with stuffed apes and toys, promotions at McDonald’s and theme-park tie-ins. “With the technology today, they can make it bigger and better, but not any more loving,” says Terry Moore, who starred in the original. But she says she’s excited about the remake; she has a part in the pic.

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