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George of the Jungle

Rated PG, 92 min. Directed by Sam Weisman. Starring Brendan Fraser, Leslie Mann, Thomas Haden Church, Holland Taylor, Richard Roundtree, Greg Cruttwell, Abraham Benrubi, John Cleese.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 18, 1997

Based on the late Sixties Jay Ward cartoon of the same name, this live-action Disney version is so silly, so garishly over-the-top, and so bracingly eager to please, that it's hard not to fall under its gleefully gooney spell. It's a kids' film first, but adult chaperones will find themselves grinning along at Fraser's spirited characterization and director Weisman's inventive storytelling, which utilizes many of Ward's groundbreaking techniques, including the smartass narrator and much breaking down of the fourth wall. Not only does the “navigationally challenged” King of the Jungle frequently turn to speak to the audience, but so does almost everyone else in the picture. It's outlandish, of course, but that's the fun of it, and against all odds, it works. When a beautiful San Francisco-based adventurer by the name of Ursula (Mann) finds herself tracking the myth of the Great White Ape deep in the heart Africa, she encounters more than she bargained for in the form of George and his plethora of animal friends. There's a talking ape named Ape (voiced by Cleese and wonderfully crafted by Jim Henson's Creature Shop); the colorful Tookie Tookie bird; and Shep, the elephant who thinks he's a dog. Saved from a lion attack by the wily George, Ursula finds herself falling for the big lug, much to the dismay of her fiancé Lyle Van De Groot (Church), a scheming society boy intent on carrying out the proposed nuptials. Add to this a pair of poachers (Cruttwell and Benrubi) intent on capturing Ape and the money-mad parents of Ursula, and you've got a live-action cartoon that for all intents and purposes is funnier than its source material. Ward's original show lacked much of the high wit and sarcastic banter that made his name a household word in animation (“Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “Fractured Fairy Tales”), but Weisman and Fraser's take makes up for that in spades. Relentlessly ridiculous, the gags are at times a spotty affair. (How many times can we watch poor George plow into stationary objects before the fun goes out of it? You might as well ask how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Charm's Blo-Pop.) A subdued sort of juvenilia is at the reins more often than not, but above it all, Fraser -- a warm and generous physical comedian operating at full steam -- is George, from his leopard-print “butt flap” to his scraggly mane and artfully honed abdominals. Say what you will about live-action knockoffs of classic kids' shows (and feel free to be especially negative about The Flintstones), but with this Disney adaptation Weisman and Fraser have managed to capture the riotous, chaotic spirit of Ward en toto.
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