Published July 1, 1997
George of the Jungle, directed by Sam Weisman and written by Dana Olsen and Audrey Wells is Disney’s concession to children who found Hercules too sophisticated. I would have guessed that anyone over the age of nine who so much as cracks a smile at all this strenuous but vain effort to be funny must be mentally retarded, but for the fact that a number of my fellow critics claim to have found it fraught with hilarity.
Brendan Fraser plays Jay Ward’s 1960s vintage Tarzan send-up, the eponymous George, while Leslie Mann plays Ursula Stanhope, an heiress from San Francisco in search of a reputed great white ape. George saves her from a lion after her witless fiancé, Lyle Van de Groot (Thomas Haden Church), has run away in terror. Lyle has followed her into the jungle only, it seems, to display his stupidity and boorishness and he is made merciless fun of by her black bearers, led by “Kwame” (Richard Roundtree). Two comic bad guys, Max (Greg Cruttwell) and Thor (Abraham Benrubi), meanwhile are plotting to kidnap George’s much more intelligent ape-companion (voice of John Cleese), and display him in Las Vegas.
Like the movie version of The Flintstones, the alleged humor of this film comes from its translation of cartoon reality into live action. Also like The Flintstones, it fails miserably. To see George crash into apparently real trees and leave a body-shaped dent in them, just as he would in a cartoon, seems merely silly. So does having an elephant running around like a playful puppy-dog or cartoon-fighting in which, for example, the elephant discharges coconuts from his trunk like cannonballs. The point is to rub our noses in the fakery of it, as the cartoons themselves never did, as if this was in itself terribly clever—like the voiceover narration of Jay Ward cartoons which nudges and winks at us over the picture’s transparent artifice.
Thus the elephant as the “great big peanut-loving poochie” is shown with a giant dog-biscuit in his mouth. The narrator says: “Wait a second; the dog bone is too much. Lose it,” and it disappears. Likewise, when Lyle falls face-first into a pile of elephant dung, one of the native bearers breaks out of character and says to the camera: “Bad guy falls in poop; a classical element of physical comedy. This is where we throw back our heads and laugh.” And they proceed to do so. This sort of proto-irony was mildly funny back in the 1960s, but it will strike all but the youngest children of the 1990s as equivalent in postmodernism, which itself enshrines corniness, of corny. It is to me almost as embarrassing as Willie Brown’s appearance as himself in a cameo role.
Nor is the interlude of savage-in-the-city business, overlaid as it is with sexual innuendo, any less familiar. The voiceover narrator tells us that: “The jungle king was pleased to find that he looked pretty good in Armani.”
Then George himself turns to the camera and says: “Pretty darn good.”
Compared with this feeble stuff, Tarzan himself would look fresh and original. Alas, as Philip Larkin once wrote about the pre-World War I world, “never such innocence again.”