What Tooki-tooki So Long?
I dreaded seeing this one. Of course like most folks my age, I adored the Jay Ward television cartoons from which this film is adapted – but most folks only remember the crowd-pleasing theme song, and not the actual cartoons. Trailers for the film offered the theme (covered for the film by the Presidents of the United States) but little else, leading me to suspect that the film would offer little else as well. To my surprise, the feature also retains the series’ witty, self-aware writing style, represented mostly by Keith Scott’s hilarious narration. In true Ward style, George keeps the kids amused with broad slapstick (“Watch out for that -“) while feeding adults gags over the little ones’ heads (“Meanwhile, back in the jungle…” intones Scott with just the right note of sarcasm).
Contrary to popular opinion, the George of the Jungle cartoons were never a direct parody of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books, but of the series of Tarzan films made by MGM in the 1930s and ’40s – a series that was never too far from self-parody to begin with. Thus, in a way, the George feature film is a step closer to the source. Certainly, Brendan Fraser (The Scout) is cast as a George much closer to the sexy icon of Johnny Weissmuller than to the massively top-heavy, thin-legged cartoon character. And the film’s role of Ursula (Leslie Mann) has been expanded to make her as romantic and innocently sympathetic as Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane, while the cartoon Ursula was a nagging jungle housewife. Even the main heavy embodied by Thomas Haden Church is such a delicious jerk that you miss him when he disappears from the middle of the picture for a while.
True, at roughly 15 times the length of the TV cartoons, the feature version feels like it’s being stretched. Several times I felt that the end was around the corner, when there was actually several reels left. There are also quite a few compromises made to cater to the ’90s audience – the audience that expects a few fart jokes in a Disney comedy. These folks can’t be expected to know that George’s friend Ape is supposed to sound like Ronald Coleman, and so John Cleese voices him to sound like John Cleese. But George of the Jungle succeeds by keeping the laughs coming and the style accessibly cartoonish (unlike, say, The Flintstones, which took things to the range of nightmarish grotesquerie).
As a bonus, some theaters are also running the film with the excellent new Mickey Mouse short “Runaway Brain”, in which Mickey volunteers to be a laboratory subject for a simian mad scientist (Kelsey Grammer).