Hollywood has abandoned the high-budget live-action family comedy, and it’s a shame. I mean, most of them were not great, but I miss the era where each summer included two or three goofy tentpoles starring famous comedians and getting a set of Happy Meal toys. Nowadays, it seems this format has been mostly replaced with straight-to-streaming filler and CGI franchises.
Or maybe nothing has changed. I don’t know. I haven’t run the numbers. I guess I just miss being nine years old when these films felt like events.
Regardless, it is with some fondness that I look back on George of the Jungle, the Brendan Fraser vehicle that adapted the late-60s Jay Ward cartoon. The premise is basically “Tarzan but a dumbass,” which, to be fair, is more than enough of a concept for a 90-minute comedy. George’s signature move is crashing into trees when swinging vine to vine. “Watch out for that… *crash*… tree.” It’s a simple but effective gag, though that effectiveness diminishes well before the 20th repetition.
But I am getting ahead of myself. If you know just one thing about the George of the Jungle franchise, almost certainly you know its song. The timpani-banging “George, George, George of the Jungle” tune is one of the great TV theme songs, and the movie knows this: We get countless variations and interpolations of the tune, both in the foreground and background, and in wildly different tones and circumstances.
The story — to the extent that you can call what this movie has a “story” as opposed to three or four scenarios stitched together with some gags, set pieces, and vibes — is that George rescues heiress Ursula (Leslie Mann) from a lion during a safari and teachers her life in his jungle. Then, her crazy fiance Lyle (Thomas Haden Church) shoots George, so Ursula brings George to San Francisco and teaches him life in her jungle. It’s, in essence, a bare-bones romantic comedy in narrative structure.
There are plenty of other trimmings like an animatronic ape, featuring a terrific voice performance by John Cleese, and an elephant who thinks he’s a dog. There’s also a self-aware narrator who makes some fun meta jokes. It ends with a big jungle-themed Vegas show performance, with Cleese singing Sinatra’s “My Way.”
The whole thing moves from gag to gag so briskly that it never becomes tedious despite only a few of the jokes being genuinely funny. There’s enough charm and a lightweight sense of fun that it holds together as distinctly watchable. Fraser, Mann, and Church all give pitch-perfect performances: I appreciate that Mann in particular senses that the film begs for a bubbly gaze upon George/Fraser rather than anything of heft, though Church definitely comes across as the most talented of the bunch, overachieving as the d-bag villain. Fraser, meanwhile, is what he is: a big slab of boyish charm. He’s shirtless most of this movie, showing off his chiseled abs, and he uses an over-affected jungle patois that grows old about 4 minutes into the film.
George of the Jungle makes me wish I could go back to the since-closed Regal Cinema in Sterling, VA I went to when I was a kid and order a Mr. Pibb and small popcorn just like I used to when movies like this were appointment viewing.