George of the Jungle (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I suppose there are a lot of Generation Xers who harbor a certain fondness for the old TV cartoon George of the Jungle, which ran on Saturday mornings in the late '60s and early '70s (apparently, there were only 17 episodes produced, but they were rerun so often that it seemed like a lot more). As a result, it was only to be expected that in this era of re-hashing TV products for the big screen, someone would stumble upon George. The outcome is a live-action re- interpretation of the cartoon that, despite changing numerous details, remains faithful to the spirit of its inspiration. However, perhaps the most surprising thing about this movie is that it's far more entertaining than one might reasonably expect given the premise.

Disney is stuck in a remake rut, and some of their recent efforts (101 Dalmatians and That Darn Cat in particular) have been less-than-inspired. And, while George of the Jungle isn't likely to top many critics' end-of-the-year Top 10 lists, it's a breath of fresh air coming from a studio that has become known for its stagnant, family values-oriented treacle. George of the Jungle possesses both an edge and a sense of self-mocking that's unusual for any feature, live or animated, that emerges from under the Mouse's protective umbrella.

Arguably, the best thing about the original George of the Jungle was the theme song, and it has been retained in its full glory (albeit slightly altered -- some of the lyrics aren't the same). And, of course, George still swings from vine to vine, regularly smacking into tree trunks. However, while that's the movie's most recognizable and most frequently-repeated comic routine, George manages to be more than just a one-joke picture.

George of the Jungle's plot borrows heavily from the likes of King Kong, Crocodile Dundee, and, of course, Tarzan. George (Brendan Fraser), who is known variously as the "Great White Ape" and the "King of the Jungle," spends his days hanging out in the land of Bukuvu, which lies deep in the heart of Africa. George is a man, but he was raised by animals, and he can speak their language as well as his own. His companions include a playful elephant called Shep, a Tookie Tookie bird, and a talking ape named (appropriately) Ape (voice of John Cleese). George's life changes forever when a group of humans enter his world. They include the pretty-but-flighty Ursula (Leslie Mann), her stuck-up fiance, Lyle (Thomas Haden Church), and a pair of inept big game hunters (Greg Cruttwell and Abraham Benrubi). George saves Ursula from a lion attack, then shows her around his domain. She returns the favor by taking him to San Francisco and introducing him to another kind of jungle. In the process, the two fall in love, but complications arise when Ape is ape-napped.

Does this sound stupid and silly? Yes, but that's the whole point, and director Sam Weisman (Bye Bye, Love), his cast, and crew all recognize it and revel in it. By adopting the tone of the cartoon series, George of the Jungle manages to appeal to children, while some of the unexpectedly clever humor will keep adults from becoming too restless. The film pokes fun at everything from "serious" jungle epics to Disney's own The Lion King. For those who prefer "least common denominator" humor, there's plenty of flatulence, and some of the double entendres are salacious enough to push the limits of the PG-rating.

The best running gag doesn't involve George crashing into a tree; instead, it satirizes one of my least-favorite motion picture devices: the voiceover narrative. The disembodied vocal talent in George of the Jungle belongs to Keith Scott, who sounds astonishingly like Don Pardo. Omniscient and without form, he emotes alliterative, flowery prose with tongue in cheek. Some of his observations are slyly amusing; others are downright hilarious. And there's a moment when he gets into a heated argument with one of the big game hunters. That's right: a voiceover narrator trading insults with a character.

Using the same vacuous expression he displayed to good effect in Encino Man and Airheads, Brendan Fraser is suitably bland as George. Leslie Mann (The Cable Guy), whose blond hair and helium voice cause her to resemble Joey Lauren Adams from Chasing Amy, plays an appealing Ursula. Thomas Haden Church is effectively snobbish as Lyle. The real scene-stealer, however, is the animatronic Ape, who is enjoyable in large part due to the vocal talents of veteran British comedian John Cleese.

The comedy in George of the Jungle is not sophisticated, but it is frequently audacious and irreverent. Technically, George of the Jungle isn't as polished as Disney's most recent animated feature, Hercules, but, on a certain level, it offers a better entertainment value. The film delights in its own daffiness, and the relatively short running length avoids overkill. The result is one of Disney's most lively non-animated features in years.

George of the Jungle (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 1997-07-16
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1