January 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

He’s nifty to look at. Huge but not quite humungous, with giant bulgy limbs and a back so long and jutting it looks like something you’d want to ride a skateboard off, the title beast of Mighty Joe Young is undeniably a special-effects marvel. He doesn’t just look like an actual gorilla. He moves like one, so that when he’s galloping in a rage across a grassy plain, swiping his hand at a vehicle he’s trying to outrun, you feel you’re seeing a creature who’s fantastic yet real. Of course, what you’re actually watching is animatronic puppetry, computer-generated imagery, and — that old fave — a man in an ape suit, but the seamless merging of special effects is a marvel to behold.

Neat as Joe looks, you do wish that someone had bothered to give him a personality. Mighty Joe Young, a remake of the 1949 sentimental monster melodrama (in essence, King Kong with a smaller oversize gorilla), is a showcase for the imagination of visual effects wizard Rick Baker, but the script is very bland monkey business indeed. Raised in a jungle outside an African village, where he has formed a lifelong friendship with Jill (Charlize Theron), a kind of amateur babelicious Jane Goodall, Joe is threatened by the same evil poachers who killed his mother. He is taken to the safety of a California animal conservancy and, once there, put on display as a way to lure funding. (Is there a movie of the late ’90s that isn’t about finance?) The poachers find him anyway, of course. It’s up to Jill and Gregg (Bill Paxton), the zoologist she has been flirting with, to take action.

No more cages! No more wildlife preserves! Free Mighty Joe Young! Free him so that he can bust out and go wild on Hollywood Boulevard! If Mighty Joe Young weren’t so predictable, it might have been grade-B fun. As it is, even Jill’s ”bond” with Joe is an erotic joke that never hatches. In one year alone, Charlize Theron has had to make goo-goo eyes at both a giant ape and Kenneth Branagh channeling Woody Allen. It’s time she was matched up with some higher primates. C

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