George of the Jungle (1997)

Dir. Sam Weisman. Starring Brendan Fraser, Leslie Mann, John Cleese

A beautiful young heiress, stuck in an engagement with a man she doesn’t seem to like very much, goes on a trip in which her fiance’s  venality comes to the fore as a new suitor slouches in. This new man charms her, even though he’s rough around the edges and would be incapable of fitting into the nice society that she belongs to. (It’s not for nothing that young woman’s mother hates this interloper and strongly prefers her daughter’s rich suitor.) He saves her from a dangerous situation; he dances with her like she’s never been danced with before; a mixture of new surroundings and a realization that she can, in fact, bail on her worthless fiance leads her to do just that. This is not a new story—women have been sifted through these marriage plots since before the word “sift” came into English—but I just want to have it on the record that George of the Jungle got to theaters with this setup months before Titanic did. (Just imagine if the people of Titanic had the same kind of “Watch out for that—!” ethos that the people of George of the Jungle had.)

It’s my experience that there are two ways to get people to laugh at your jokes. Either you go fully deadpan and pretend that nothing you’ve said is funny at all, or you look so pleased with yourself that people laugh anyway. George of the Jungle does the latter over and over again, led primarily by Brendan Fraser as the King of the Jungle. It’s a throwaway line, but the greatest moment of truly manic glee in this movie is part where Ursula (Mann) returns to the jungle, swings on a vine, and collides heavily with a tree. This is George’s signature, and after it happens, he turns to the camera and proclaims, “George good teacher!” The hair is wild, his pecs are geometric, and there is a twinkle in his eye that years of watching TV have shown me usually belongs to serial killers. “George good teacher!” is one of my favorite lines because there is gargantuan gusto in it, which at its most endearing the entire movie emulates. Fraser is game for this over and over again. I don’t know even if I was in Brendan-Fraser-in-1997-shape that I would be up for wearing nothing but a “buttflap” in a major motion picture, nor do I think I would be able to refer to it that way multiple times. There’s a fabulous sequence where George learns what coffee is (Now George understand!) but doesn’t learn that one does not just eat the grounds. In this scene Fraser launches himself around the set like four-year-olds might do if they drank Red Bulls with Pixie Stix on the rim, practices his tryout to become a local weatherman, and sets a Guinness record for saying the word “java” with the kind of articulation one usually associates with jazz musicians. This is a movie that winks at itself over and over again, but it is not a movie which could survive if it were even an iota sarcastic. As far as it is possible for someone to play George of the Jungle straight, Fraser does it, and he is one of this movie’s magnetic poles.

The other is Thomas Haden Church as the exquisitely named “Lyle van de Groot,” who is sarcastic and only as tough as his big brother who will come beat you up, you meanie, and in that snideness provides just enough leavening to keep the movie from spiraling off its axis. Church’s energy—puts feet on everything, takes online IQ tests, libertarian—is as essential as Fraser’s unironic excitement, and most of the best lines in the movie belong to the guy who understands how linking verbs work. There’s a great one-liner about the mythical “White Ape,” a presumed drink that belongs alongside “two Black Russians.” His Swahili is, noticeably, at least as bad as George’s English, and my absolute favorite moment in the entire movie is his attempt to woo the African guides to his side by speaking to them in their language. “Pardon me, girls,” he begins. “I know you’re feeling pretty hey sailor up here about now. But if you would just let me order a bowl of fried clams, we can all have smallpox tomorrow morning.” They laugh uproariously, as they have frequently laughed at Lyle’s racism, pettiness, and propensity to do the wrong thing at exactly the wrong moment. (The “Bad guy falls in poop” monologue which follows a few scenes later is the height of this particular set of gags, although I’m fond of the more absurd scene in which the guides successfully pick Lyle from a police lineup entirely made up of men whose skin or height would disqualify them.) Yet the movie also, in its own offhand way, recognizes the power that someone with Lyle’s privilege has. Sometimes that privilege is skewered, as when Lyle tries to win over the guides with gifts like he’s Cecil Rhodes or something; N’Dugo (Michael Chinyamurindi) accepts Lyle’s gift of a “magic picture,” though not without letting him know that it is not as advanced as he would like. Sometimes that privilege is a little scarier. George, returned to Africa, is captured by a group of tough Germanic types (Gunnar, Gunter, Hans, Jan, and Phil). The best man won, Lyle gloats to George, lording this physical victory over the Jungle King which he could not win without using a gang. Then he thinks better of the phrasing. The guy with the mercenaries won, he says, dragging Ursula off, and it is as neat a statement about the propensity of the rich to buy control as you’re liable to get in a kids’ movie.

Granted, this is a kids’ movie, and so there’s a fair bit of stuff that I remember appealing to me much more as a little person than as an adult. Some of it has never been all that interesting—George’s courtship of Ursula was a drag when I was eight years old, and it’s a drag now—but there are other things that I thought were charming then which now seem to last forever. George and Ursula meet when he intercedes for her against a lion; the fight, which was always hammy, appealed to my elementary school relief more than it feels funny or interesting to me presently. Little me was annoyed by the presence of Capuchin monkeys in Africa, but very invested in the saga of one little guy who gets excluded from monkey games until George summons up that same lion for him to scare off; unless you unironically enjoy the plot of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” this lacks thrills. But for a kids’ movie, this is one which is not shy about sight gags, puns, and absurdities that are likelier targets for adults. I don’t know that I have ever been inside a Neiman Marcus in my life, but I have definitely referred to multiple department stores as a “big shiny cave.” George’s dog, Shep, is an elephant; how Ape (Cleese) never got around to explaining the difference between elephants and dogs is sort of beyond me, but Shep is a brilliant way to stuff in some good stuff. George throws a tree branch for Shep to fetch; Shep returns with a log. Shep carries Ursula and George around as they search for Lyle; a brilliant cut shows that one of the African guides is carrying Lyle piggyback, who is shouting her name as she shouts his. And then there is the power of the narrator (Keith Scott), who has the ability to take a giant-sized Milk-Bone out of Shep’s mouth upon deciding that it’s “too much.” (Shep is displeased.) No other single element of the movie is as silly and absurd as that narrator, who everyone seems to be able to hear but who no one ever really pays all that much attention to unless bidden. There’s a wonderful moment where he fast forwards through a fight he has with the poachers, Max and Thor (Greg Cruttwell and Abraham Benrubi); as Max tries to shake it off, he glares at his leather-wearing compatriot. “Were you arguing with the narrator?” he asks, simultaneously incredulous and quite sure that the only reason he’s gone through this experience is because the narrator has put his thumb on the scale.

 

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