Watch out for that tree! George of the Jungle marks its 25th anniversary since the TV series was adapted for the big screen in 1997.
Brendan Fraser is experiencing something of a renaissance right now with appearances in films directed by both Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese. The actor broke into film with leading roles in the early 1990s. However, it wasn’t until George of the Jungle that he started seeing returns at the box office. More commercial success would follow but the Tarzan spoof was his biggest success to date in his career. The film earned $174.4 million against a $55 million budget. Interestingly enough, Walt Disney Animation Studios would release a Tarzan film two years later, bringing the Disney Renaissance to an end. Fun fact: Fraser auditioned for both roles, testing twice for Disney’s Tarzan.
George’s (Brendan Fraser) story is no different than Tarzan’s. He’s raised in the African jungle by animals. This is one of those spoofs that go full spoof: the titular character has a foster brother, who is an ape named Ape (John Cleese) and has a pet elephant, Shep, that acts like a dog. But anyway, Ursula Stanhope (Leslie Mann) is touring Uganda with tour guide Kwame (Richard Roundtree) as the film begins. Suddenly, fiancé Lyle Van De Groot (Thomas Haden Church) shows up out of nowhere with a pair of poachers. When Kwame tells the story of White Ape, everything changes. Lyle would rather Ursula go home. They go into the jungle, where he villainously pursues the White Ape. Which, to his dismay, is really the King of the Jungle and he’s going to lose his fiancé as a result.
What happens next? Well, anything that can go wrong does go wrong. For one, Ape talking causes the poachers to forget about Shep. They’d rather take him to Las Vegas and make a ton of money. George gets in the way, resulting in Lyle shooting him. Lyle and the poachers go to prison while Ursula flies George to San Francisco. This is where we get some next-level family comedy. Ursula’s mom basically becomes the disapproving mother. Her father comes around. There’s some fun moments here with George adjusting to life outside of the jungle. When a guy gets stuck on the Bay Bridge, he’s the only one who can rescue him. This is the moment where Ursula realizes she needs to tell her parents the truth. Of course, her mother, Beatrice (Holland Taylor), won’t have any of it and tells George off.
When I watched the film heading into the 25th anniversary, I remembered that both Fraser and Mann were in leading roles. What I completely forgot was that Thomas Haden Church was the villain. He’s not forgettable by any means but it was one of those Oh! moments. Oh yeah, Night at the Museum fans get a chance to watch Crystal at the start of her career, nearly a decade before she would annoy Ben Stiller as Dexter.
The film is completely absurd but the comedy is so ridiculous here that it really doesn’t matter. You have a moment where poachers Max (Greg Cruttwell) and Thor (Abraham Benrubi) are getting into a fight with narrator Keith Scott. I mean, if you’re going for a spoof, you have to take it all the way! Hell, they spoof The Lion King‘s Pride Rock when George and Ursula present their new son, George Jr., the the jungle animals. Ape still ends up with a Las Vegas stage show but on his own accords. After all, he does it his way much like Frank Sinatra.
Visually speaking, there’s a solid mix here of real animals, animatronics/puppets, and CGI. I mean, can you imagine Brendan Fraser getting into it with an actual lion? He’s holding an animatronic while his stunt double wrestles one of the three lions used in the film. None of the gorillas are here but that’s not much of a surprise. And yet, none of this takes one out of the film. After all, we’re here for the comedy and that’s exactly what we get.
George of the Jungle is still an all-around fun time with plenty of laughs after a quarter of a century.
DIRECTOR: Sam Weisman
SCREENWRITERS: Dana Olsen and Audrey Wells
CAST: Brendan Fraser, Leslie Mann, Thomas Haden Church, Richard Roundtree, Greg Cruttwell, Abraham Benrubi, Holland Taylor, and John Cleese
Disney released George of the Jungle in theaters on July 16, 1997. Grade: 4/5
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