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'George' hits light moments -- and more than a few trees Movie review: 'George of the Jungle' is thin on plot, thick on scenery and totally larded with ham.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Disney's new, live-action version of the 1960s cartoon series "George of the Jungle" perfectly captures the sensibilities of the original.

That's a good thing?

I hated the cartoon, and not just for the most inane theme song ever produced. Even then, "George of the Jungle" typified for me a cynical adult notion that if you just put moving images on the television screen, kids would lap it up. It was one of those lazy animations where the backgrounds would loop around so that the characters in the foreground would keep running past the same items over and over again. I can still remember the insult I felt whenever I noticed that deficiency: "I'm 10 years old, and these people have no respect for me."

I also wasn't charmed by a central character who, though an utter moron -- he never, ever watched out for that tree -- always, always came out on top. George wasn't rewarded for resourcefulness or courage or fortitude. He just blundered onto the scene at the exact moment when the incompetence of the bad guys finally asserted itself. He wasn't even capable of appreciating the irony of what had happened.

It didn't help that the makers of the cartoon did recognize those ironies, as evidenced by the running commentary of a wry narrator. This same approach worked with the genuinely satirical "Rocky and Bullwinkle" show, which was also the brainchild of George's creator, the late Jay Ward.

But as a kid, I didn't relish a cartoon that was a send-up of the heroes I craved. I wanted the heroes.

The same faults apply to the new film, which winks at its audience so vigorously that children will be deprived of the chance to engage in the plot, flimsy as it is. They'll be left with comedy that much of the time will sail over their heads, including some that should, especially the frequent genitalia jokes.

That said, director Sam Weisman deserves credit for a "George" that is visually splendid (it was filmed in a luscious-looking Hawaii), has remarkably realistic animal puppetry and gives its actors carte-blanche to ham it up. Chief among them is a sinewy and affable Brendan Fraser ("Encino Man") in the title role as the klutzy, slow-witted vine-swinger who falls in love with an adorable San Francisco socialite named Ursula (Leslie Mann of "The Cable Guy").

The movie is not without wit. My favorite gag was George's pet elephant Shep, who behaves exactly like a golden retriever. He wags his tail, pants and collapses onto his haunches while scratching his head with a hind leg. Another of George's pals is an ape, named "Ape," who reads Shakespeare with granny glasses propped on the end of his nose, plays chess and speaks the Queen's English with John Cleese's voice.

The thin story has Ursula, the fiancee of a popinjay played by Thomas Haden Church (Lowell on "Wings"), becoming smitten with George after he rescues her from a lion's jaws. The plot also involves poachers, the funniest of whom is Greg Cruttwell ("2 Days in the Valley"), who seems to have wandered straight from an East London pub into the heart of the jungle.

After the story loses steam in the jungle, it transports George to San Francisco, where the out-of-his-element scenes fail to achieve nearly enough hilarity (although a cable-swinging scene on the Golden Gate bridge is spectacular). The best part of the San Francisco scenes is Holland Taylor ("One Fine Day") as Ursula's disapproving mother, whose icy threat to George provides the movie's biggest menace.

But not much menace at that. A character who slams face-first into tree after tree without suffering so much as a scratch doesn't have much to fear from a blue-blooded snob.

'George of the Jungle'

Starring Brendan Fraser and Leslie Mann

Directed by Sam Weisman

Released by Walt Disney

Rated PG (off-color jokes)

Sun score: 1/2

Pub Date: 7/16/97

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