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Hollywood & Vine: A Genial 'George'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 15, 1997

Brendan Fraser, clad in a loincloth and a dab of coconut oil, breathes loopy new life into the swinging '60s TV cartoon icon in "George of the Jungle." Like his animated counterpart, Fraser's bumbling arborealist can cling to vines with the tenacity of a fungus. But he never, ever remembers to "watch out for that tree!"

Located in the heart of Africa (just above the liver), George's treetop digs in fictional Buvuku look more like the Tiki Room at Trader Vic's than a rain forest in the Congo. Of course, so did the campy sets of the Tarzan movies that helped inspire Jay Ward's spoofy TV series.

Part screwball romance, part special-effects adventure, this silly safari also incorporates such Ward touches as learned native bearers -- "Ah! Bad guy's head falls in elephant poop. Classic element of physical comedy." There's also the omniscient narrator (Keith Scott), a cynic who has undoubtedly done one too many PBS nature documentaries. Whatever. He changes the story line on a whim, argues with the characters and goofs around with audience expectations a la David Letterman.

An animated preamble speedily recounts how George survived a plane crash and toddled off into the wilds, where he was taken in by a scholarly gorilla, Ape (voice by John Cleese), and befriended by a talking toucan, Tookie Tookie, and his faithful "peanut-loving poochie," Shep the elephant. But George has grown into a buff, Bambi-eyed innocent in his twenties when the movie officially gets underway.

Written by Dana Olsen and Audrey Wells, the screenplay marries aspects of "Tarzan's New York Adventure" with those of "Philadelphia Story." It focuses on George's love affair with Ursula (Leslie Mann), a socialite who is rethinking her engagement to the insufferable Lyle Van de Groot (Thomas Haden Church) while exploring beautiful Buvuku.

After George rescues Ursula from a lion and her snooty fiance, the two fall in love back at the treehouse that the klutzy jungle king shares with Ape. Eventually they travel to the United States to explain the situation to her ritzy parents. Of course her mother (Holland Taylor) is appalled at this turn of events and threatens to "remove his reason for wearing a loincloth" if he doesn't return to Africa forthwith.

The threat comes off as needlessly mean-spirited and harsh, given the otherwise genial nature of this family-oriented fare. Though the picture's not without such sophomoric slapstick staples as poopy pratfalls and gaseous gorillas, thoughts of Lorena Bobbittry have no place in romantic comedy.

George, who refers to his loincloth as a "butt flap," probably didn't even know what the wretched woman was talking about anyhow. He is, after all, as dense as his jungle home and has received faulty sex education from Ape, who suggests he bare his teeth, puff out his cheeks, throw a handful of grass in the air and jump about in a circle to indicate his interest to Ursula.

Fraser, who also played the Cro-Magnon in "Encino Man," brings physical agility, boyish charm and good comic timing to the role -- not to mention the body and shaggy blond hair of a bodice-ripper cover boy. He manages to add just enough pathos to keep the character viable and the romance with the bubbly Mann believable.

Despite the many special effects -- such as the morphing that lets Shep bound about like a golden retriever -- "George of the Jungle" retains a humble quality that recalls another, surprisingly unaffected Disney comedy, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." Sam Weisman, the TV veteran who directed "D2: The Mighty Ducks," makes it look so easy, like he simply took the lid off the barrel and let the monkeys out.

George of the Jungle is rated PG for naughty notions.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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