Grade: B
Rated PG

Not long ago Disney Movie Club released an exclusive Blu-ray version of the live-action adventure-comedy George of the Jungle, and even if you’re not a member there are copies to be had on eBay—many of them reasonably priced and still in shrink-wrap

Popular when it debuted in 1997 ahead of the original Jay Ward cartoon’s 30th anniversary, George of the Jungle grossed close to $175 million worldwide. It features a rare blend of comedy: humor that appeals to kids, but also humor that’s clever enough for adults. Fans of the cult-classic ‘60s TV series will appreciate that director Sam Weisman got the tone and treatment right. It’s one the most entertaining live-action film versions of an animated TV series—though admittedly that’s kind of a backhanded compliment, given such feature-length disappointments as The Flintstones, Casper, Dudley Do-Right, Fat Albert, and Inspector Gadget.

Still, I wouldn’t pay attention to the 5.5 out of 10 rating that close to 80,000 readers gave it at the Internet Movie Database, and I’d ignore the 56 percent “rotten” critics’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Legendary reviewer Roger Ebert was more on the money when he pronounced George of the Jungle a three-star movie (out of four). As he wrote when it was first released, this live-action film starring Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) “tries for the look and feel of a cartoon,” with the results being that it’s “sort of funny some of the time and then occasionally hilarious.”

It’s true. George of the Jungle is amusing throughout, but then you get these surprise laugh-out-loud moments—so many that I’d have to say the film borders on being consistently funny. There are clever one-liners, pop-culture allusions, running gags, pratfalls and physical comedy (even a banana peel joke), and yes, some mild scatological humor. And don’t worry about outdated cultural jungle stereotypes. They’re met head-on, and it’s the “native bearers” and super-intelligent talking Ape who get the last laugh.

After an animated title sequence that features the theme song and establishes the backstory of how George came to be raised by apes—and is a little clumsy when it comes to vine-swinging (“Watch out for that tree!”)—the film switches to live action, melding Jay Ward’s original characters, theme song and concepts with the Tarzan/Greystoke legend.

Rich socialite Ursula (Leslie Mann) is on a find-herself adventure safari in Burundi with guide Kwame (Richard Roundtree, Shaft) and a trio of porters when she’s surprised by her fiancé, Lyle (Thomas Haden Church). He claims he’s there for her, but he’s hooked up with two goons who want to profit from the capture of a great ape. Lyle is instantly dislikable, the classic ugly American who thinks himself superior. The running jokes begin when he takes a picture of one of the bearers and begins talking about his “magic box.” They all look at him oddly, then one produces a larger camera, snaps a close-up of Lyle, and says something in Burundi. Kwame translates: “He likes your ‘magic pictures’ but he prefers the resolution of the Leica 35mm transparencies. He also says that your lens is dirty, but he has the equipment to clean it for you.” And the four of them roar with laughter. So do we.

The animals and human-animal interaction in George of the Jungle are especially accomplished. George’s live-in best friend, Ape (voiced by John Cleese) looks and acts as believably real as George himself, and with his dry sense of humor he also delivers plenty of one-liners. George’s elephant “doggie” Shep is also wonderfully rendered, with movements that really do mimic a dog’s, and when George has to fight a lion that threatens Ursula, that lion looks as real as can be . . . though the scene is played like a pro wrestling match.

A voiceover narrator (Keith Scott) keeps it light and continually breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience as well as the characters in the movie:

Narrator: “When they approached it, they gazed in awe”
Group: “Aaawwww”
Narrator: “I said ‘awe’—A-W-E!”
Group: “Ooooohhhhhh”
Narrator: “That’s better.”

The narrator also puts a comic touch on moments of violence, making sure that the audience knows it’s cartoon violence. When Lyle starts a rope bridge swaying and one of the bearers falls off and plummets down a steep canyon, the narrator quickly assures us that nobody dies in this movie. “They just get really big boo-boos” (cut to man in bandages by the campfire, staring daggers at Lyle). When George is shot, the narrator reminds, “Okay kids, let’s settle down and review the important information. Lyle is a big doofus. Poor George was really shot, but he can’t die because, let’s face it, he’s the hero.”

Three plot strands are woven together: George and Ursula’s budding romance, Lyle and his henchmen’s plot to capture Ape and sell him, and George’s experience in San Francisco after Ursula brings him home. There are some outrageous scenes—as when George walks into the room innocently naked (no more than edges of butt are shown) when Ursula is entertaining her best friend, or when Ursula’s mother threatens, “When Lyle returns, this wedding will proceed as planned. If you do anything to upset that, I’ll remove your reason for wearing a loincloth”— but the pace is so brisk that most of the adult humor will go over the heads of those too young to hear or see it.

Bottom line: Fraser is terrific as George in this joke-filled, action-packed movie, and there are so many cute animal moments that it rivals Dr. Doolittle . . . but is so much more entertaining. George of the Jungle also looks great on Blu-ray, so it’s worth the upgrade if you already own it on DVD.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 92 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Disney
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C
Rated PG for crude humor, mild violence, language and sexuality

Language: 2/10—Less than a handful of minor swearwords (“ass”) or incomplete phrases such as “son of a…..” and “what the….”

Sex: 3/10—George is in a “buttflap” most of the film; he appears briefly nude in San Francisco but you don’t see anything more than you do when he’s in a loincloth; Ursula’s friends obviously find George arousing; George innocently licks Ursula’s face while she is sleeping; and there’s a scene where Ape tries to teach George how to attract a mate that’s later played out, all for comic effect; there’s also an allusion to George’s “privates” that will go over little ones’ heads

Violence: 3/10—George is forever crashing into trees and such, without serious injury; there’s a fight with a lion that’s also played for comic effect; George is shot at one point, and Ape is tranquilized

Adult situations: Lyle smokes cigars and lights them up for the bearers, and George tries to fit in at a socialite event where there is drinking

Takeaway: George of the Jungle is good fun, but stay away from the 2003 direct-to-video sequel, with a script so bad that Fraser and Mann refused to do the film