Courtesy Photo
Directed by Sam Weisman

Starring Brendan Fraser, Leslie Mann, Thomas Haden Church, Holland Taylor, Richard Roundtree & the voice of John Cleese

Shameless Cameo: San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown

"George of the Jungle"

Opened: July 16, 1997 | Rated: PG

Rule One for enjoying "George of the Jungle": Take only that part of you that is still 11 years old and check your brain at the door.

Silly, dopey, nonsensical and full of holes, this live-action "George" is very much in the spirit of its television inspiration, the 1960s cartoon that featured a klutzy Tarzan wannabe who stumbled into vine-swinging heroics while slamming into trees.

It's an untidy movie that changes mood from slapstick comedy to misty-eyed romance and back again without reason, but the perfectly-cast Brendan Fraser (his "Encino Man" role probably got him this part) plays George with such clumsy enthusiasm that none of these particulars matter a bit.

The picture begins by introducing Ursula (Leslie Mann) -- George's jungle girlfriend in the cartoon -- as a perky, free-spirited heiress on safari. In Africa with her finance Lyle, an overbearing doofus played by Thomas Haden Church (TV's "Wings" and "Ned and Stacey"), they're on screen only long enough to establish that the engagement is on shaky ground before having a run-in with a lion.

Loser Lyle runs away and Ursula is plucked to safety by vine-swinging George, who, as you might imagine, subsequently slams them headlong into a tree.

Having never met a girl before, our hero first thinks she's some kind of "funny-looking fella," but after being set straight by one of his animal friends, the rescue leads to romance and the first half of the movie bounces back and forth between George's jungle courting rituals and Lyle's pratfall-filled search for his missing bride-to-be.

Just like in the 'toon, George lives in a ultra-modern jungle tree house with his pet elephant (who thinks he a dog) and his ape mentor, a refined, English-speaking primate who sips tea, reads the Herald and paints abstract art (voice provided by John Cleese).

Some fantastic computer effects, combined with superb anamatronics from Jim Henson's Creature Shop, give amazing life to George's companions.

One of the movie's funniest scenes, finds George playing fetch with a large tree branch and Shep, the elephant. Animated by computers, the schizophrenic pachyderm crouches, wagging his tail and panting like a puppy, then goes chasing pell-mell after the branch and comes proudly trotting back with it in his trunk. Forget realistic dinosaurs, this kind of stuff makes CGI effects fun.

Ursula is, of course, charmed by all this and eventually takes George to visit her jungle -- San Francisco. The usual savage-in-the-city gags ensue (think "Crocodile Dundee"), but with enough freshness to be funny all the same.

George discovers he looks good in Armani. George is ogled by society girls. George eats a can of coffee and runs around the city wired out of his mind. George rescues a parachutist tangled in the Bay Bridge and makes the evening news.

George also meets Ursula's crusty and connected parents, who are none too impressed with the monkey man their daughter has taken up with. Especially when she brings him to a posh party that was supposed to celebrate her engagement. (At the party, by the way, San Francisco mayor Willie Brown has a characteristically shameless cameo.)

True to the cartoon, these adventures are all narrated by a booming, satirical voice that sets up many of the laughs, saying things like "Meanwhile, at a very big and expensive waterfall set..." and describing the Bay Bridge as "the biggest rope bridge George had ever seen."

In the third act, George returns to the jungle (wearing his loin cloth and Air Jordans) to prevent poachers from capturing the talking ape for a side show in Las Vegas.

By this time, anyone not made of stone will be laughing freely enough that the ensuing monkey flatulence jokes will seem like a riot. Like I said, "George of the Jungle" appeals to the 11-year-old in us.

At times it seems director Sam Weisman and screenwriters Dana Olsen and Audry Wells haven't any more sense than George himself, depending heavily on tired adventure fare like inflatable rafts on roaring river rapids and other stock jungle plot twists.

But what makes "George" work in spite of its sometimes sloppy script is the complete abandonment of any professional pride on the part of the actors. We know from their most famous parts that Fraser and Haden Church are wonderful buffoons, but even the adorable Mann gets into the act, gladly going head first into trees and caterwauling like a Tarzan with a head cold.

Yes, "George of the Jungle," is dumb and predicated on the weakest of plot points. Just ignore all that and have fun.

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