For a latter-day generation of adolescents, “George of the Jungle” was a humorous antidote to sappy animated TV characters. The loinclothed, lantern-jawed hero had the heart of Tarzan and the sense of direction of Wrong Way Corrigan. Now, arriving on the bigscreen, he’s been turned into flesh and blood without losing his essential cartoon nature. His fantasy world of heroes, blackguards and talking animals has a giddy innocence and an ironic bite that’s appealing for both kids and their parents, and will translate into one of the better-grossing family pics this season. Not quite inspired lunacy, the film has a game, likable quality and strong sequel potential.
Pic’s animated preamble quickly recalls how baby George wandered off from a plane crash and into the wilds of fictional Bukuvu. Adopted by the erudite ape named Ape (voiced by John Cleese), he’s tutored in jungle ways. Stray sitings by natives have identified him as “the white ape.”
The screen yarn begins with twentysomething George (Brendan Fraser) having his first real encounter with the humans. On safari, socialite Ursula Stanhope (Leslie Mann) is surprised first by the unexpected arrival of her beau, Lyle Van de Groot (Thomas Haden Church), and, later, by her rescue from certain death by the African swinger.
The ape man takes the young woman to the safety of his enclave. But he’s perplexed by emotional and physical stirrings her presence elicits. Ape attempts to explain the birds and bees to the naif but falls short when he gets to mating rituals.
Meanwhile, the expedition is hot on the trail of the heiress and her abductor. Lyle is torn between cashing in by displaying the wild man in society and eliminating him for showing him up as a coward hiding behind a confident swagger.
Dana Olsen and Audrey Wells’ script underlines some basic human values in the course of developing a fish-out-of-water tale. George indeed comes to America, but not as a sideshow attraction; not quite understanding their bond, Ursula drags him home for medical attention. She realizes that she can’t marry Lyle, and is aware of the shockwaves that news will set off with her class-conscious mother.
Onetime “Encino Man” Fraser is a natural for the title role. He combines physical agility (and choreographed clumsiness) with a wide-eyed boyishness, and caps it with perfect comic timing. There’s texture to his caricature, and chemistry between him and the unconventionally attractive Mann.
There’s also an unforced quality to the production’s special effects, which otherwise could have intruded on the romantic comedy; the morphing magic that allows Shep, an elephant, to move, bound and scratch like a dog is a marvel.
Director Sam Weisman brings an affection and sweetness to the breezy tale. Although the offscreen narrator lays on the melodrama rather thick, the onscreen antics are enjoyably p.c., with fond references to everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs to “The Lion King.” Like its hero, the film has an aptitude for hitting its target and bouncing back with disarming resilience.