"Watch out for that tree!" people are always screaming at George of the Jungle, and not without reason. Plucky but maladroit, this Tarzan knockoff is liable to bang into almost anything but, like those old Timex watches, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
Created by Jay Ward, who also came up with Crusader Rabbit plus the dream team of Rocky squirrel and Bullwinkle moose, George was an animated staple of late 1960s television. Now he's been brought back as a live-action kind of guy, and if you're looking for something silly, you've got nothing to worry about.
This version of "George of the Jungle," directed by Sam Weisman and starring Brendan ("Encino Man") Fraser as the vine-swinging stalwart, tries to recapture the wised-up cleverness of the original but only partly succeeds. Sporadically playful, it ends up wearing as thin as any film geared to a preteen sense of humor is bound to do.
What that means is that audiences who might be charmed by the film's self-mocking attitude have to endure a long string of jokes about flatulence and people getting hammered in the crotch. When George's predilection for slamming into things gets factored in, that's an awful lot of low-level slapstick to put up with from anybody who is not Jim Carrey.
"George" appropriately opens with a cartoon prologue, newly created in the Ward style, locating the country of Bujumbura in the heart of Africa (as opposed to the liver and the colon) and describing the accident that left baby George stranded in the jungle and raised by tolerant apes.
Unseen but all-important is the narrator (Keith Scott), whose mellifluous voice delivers knowing asides referring to things like "the big and expensive waterfall set." It also moves us "46 vines away" from George's territory to introduce the "terrifying intruder" who turns out to be madcap heiress Ursula Stanhope (Leslie Mann) on an adventure-seeking safari in Africa.
Soon enough Ursula is joined by her arrogant snob of a fiance, Lyle Van de Groot (Thomas Hayden Church of TV's "Ned & Stacey"). He's accompanied by a pair of poachers thinly disguised as guides, one of whom, sharp-eyed Max, fans of Mike Leigh's "Naked" will recognize as the landlord from hell.
Those poachers are ever so interested in jungle legends of a gigantic White Ape, 7 feet tall with the strength of many. Lyle pooh-poohs the White Ape notion ("sounds like a drink"), but soon enough Ursula is gone, and it just might be that the big galoot has made off with her.
That galoot, of course, would be George, who, not surprisingly, given all the knocks on the head he's taken, is not the sharpest coconut in the jungle. Though the character is meant to be an innocent, Frasier's playing is closer to feeble-minded and befuddled, which puts a crimp in his audience appeal.
Naturally Ursula ends up in George's split-level treehouse, hanging out with the big guy and his menagerie. That includes Tookie-Tookie, a nosy bird; Shep, the elephant who (courtesy of computer-generated imagery) frolics like a dog; and Ape (voiced by John Cleese), an English-speaking simian who is more cultured than his vine-ripened pal could ever be.
One of the film's series of animatronic apes, including a swinging band (all masterminded by the Jim Henson Creature Shop), Ape is the most successful of the film's nonhuman characters. More comfortable painting a still life than grunting through the jungle, Ape is also dismissive by nature. When his human friend talks of passing on tricks of the jungle trade, Ape sniffs, "George's Secrets: There's the shortest book ever written."
This kind of off-handed humor appears often enough to keep "George of the Jungle" genial, but even by the standards of the genre, there is not a banana's worth of plot in the Dana Olsen and Audrey Wells script to offer narrative nourishment.
George does make a detour to Ursula's hometown of San Francisco, but only to get a great swinging-from-the-Bay Bridge stunt (performed by Joey Preston) into the picture. The film's main focus is on George's courtship of Ursula, whom he initially views as "a funny-looking fella," which is about the level of sophistication of the rest of the romance.
"George's" other preoccupation is product placement, with clothes by Armani and shoes by Nike getting prominent display. The film remains mildly amusing, but this kind of stuff ends up canceling out the humor and the innocence. Given that "King of Jungle only here to help" is George's constant refrain, he could have started by bailing out his own film.
George of the Jungle, 1997. PG, for crude humor and mild violence, language and sensuality. A Mandeville Films Avnet/Kerner production, released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Sam Weisman. Producers David Hoberman, Jordan Kerner, Jon Avnet. Executive producer C. Tad Devlin. Screenplay by Dana Olsen and Audrey Welles, story by Dana Olsen, based on characters developed by Jay Ward. Cinematographer Tom Ackerman. Editors Stuart Pappe, Roger Bondelli. Costumes Lisa Jensen. Production design Stephen Marsh. Music Marc Shaiman. Art directors David Haber, Mark Zuelzke. Set decorator Kathryn Peters. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Brendan Fraser as George. Leslie Mann as Ursula Stanhope. Thomas Haden Church as Lyle Van de Groot. Richard Roundtree as Kwame. Greg Cruttwell as Max.