Watch out for that sequel!
Ah, I love the smell of a direct-to-video sequel in the morning. So, apparently, do the friendly folks at the Walt Disney Studios, who during the past few years have left unexploited no opportunity to mine a few extra bucks from one of their familiar trademark titles.
Case in point: this cost-conscious follow-up to the Mouse House's successful live-action resurrection of Jay Ward's classic 1960s cartoon, George of the Jungle.
Facts of the Case
Five years after the events of his first feature film romp, free-swinging jungle man George (the previously unheralded Christopher Showerman, taking over the leopard-skin loincloth from Brendan Fraser—let's hope they laundered it) has settled happily into married life with his lady love Ursula (Julie Benz from Angel, standing in for Leslie Mann) and their son George Junior (Angus T. Jones from Bringing Down The House and The Rookie, looking sufficiently older than five years to spark some uncomfortable questions from the small fry about the legitimacy of his parentage).
Some people, however, just can't let a sleeping Tarzan wannabe lie—namely, Ursula's former fiancé Lyle Van de Groot (Thomas Haden Church from TV's Wings, reprising his role from the original GOTJ) and her hoity-toity mother Beatrice Stanhope (Christina Pickles from Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, replacing Holland Taylor). Lyle's still carrying a big-time torch for the fair Ursula, and mother Beatrice simply can't bear the thought of her daughter and grandson living in a treehouse with a flea-infested illiterate who talks to gorillas and other wildlife, and who thinks his trusty elephant is a dog. So Beatrice and Lyle engineer Ursula's return trip to civilization, where a sideshow hypnotist (John Kassir, the voice of the Cryptkeeper in Tales from the Crypt) erases her memory of her life in the African treetops and convinces her that she and Lyle are husband and wife. Meanwhile, Lyle's minions are planning to bulldoze George's jungle to prevent Ursula from ever returning home.
Of course, as Bugs Bunny once said, this means war. George makes his way to America, where his best friend and adoptive brother, an ape named Ape (played by a stunt actor in a monkey suit, but voiced by the redoubtable John Cleese), now enjoys the heady life of a high-stakes poker player in the neon jungle of Las Vegas. It's up to the hapless ape-man, the erudite man-ape, and their animal pals Shep the elephant, Tookie the messenger toucan, and Rocky the kickboxing kangaroo (I'm not making this up, honest) to snatch Ursula from the clutches of her shrewish mom and the villainous Lyle, and skedaddle back to the wild kingdom before it's leveled for real estate development.
I will confess that I have not availed myself fully of the pleasures of the first George of the Jungle movie, having seen only portions of it on television. (I considered renting it for comparative analysis, but after viewing the product at hand, one romp in this fetid rain forest seems plenty to me.) I cannot say much, therefore, about how the sequel stacks up against its predecessor. But, having cut my eye teeth on Jay Ward's seminal cartoon series during my youth ill-spent before the cathode ray tube, I was prepared for an experience rivaling digital proctoscopy for therapeutic effect.
Color me mildly surprised. Don't get me wrong—I'm not suggesting that George of the Jungle 2 is an undiscovered cinematic gemstone in the rough. It's cheesy, obvious, relies overmuch on bodily function humor, and contains not one performance that the viewer will remember for even five seconds after the screen fades to black. But it tries hard, is creditably faithful to its source material, manages to capture the recognizable earmarks (if not the subversive soul) of Jay Ward's creation, is briskly paced, and is as painless as one has any right to expect from a straight-to-the-discount-retailer effort. I squirmed only sporadically during the flick's 87 minutes. One could do worse.
Christopher Showerman is mostly a nonentity in the titular role. It appears, from the little I've seen of the first film, that Showerman was directed more in imitation of Brendan Fraser's interpretation of George than of Ward's animated character himself. Showerman's portrayal, then, borrows tons of Fraser's childlike goofiness (ported over from his starmaking turn in Encino Man) and somewhat less of the cartoon's aggressively lunkheaded simplicity. It's too bad that the actor born to play this part—Patrick Warburton (The Tick, The Emperor's New Groove)—wasn't handed the role and allowed to give it a more authentically Wardian spin. But Showerman is likable, and his lightweight effort makes for harmless fun. The rest of the cast, with the exception of the scenery-gnawing Thomas Haden Church, generates all the excitement of flocked wallpaper.
It's tempting to rip the laughably tacky CGI that runs rampant through the movie, but I have a feeling that would be missing the point. To mock the world of George of the Jungle for looking fake is not unlike criticizing a Three Stooges short for being inane and cartoonishly violent. It is, but what else did you expect? At this stage of the game, though, audiences are sophisticated enough that even a loony comic fantasy has to display some serious technical chops. Disney's budget-squeezing and rushed production schedule for these video throwaways presume the viewer doesn't know quality, or doesn't care. They're wrong, but as long as families hungry for child-friendly fare keep snapping this stuff up, Mickey and Company will continue to crank it out.
Speaking of child-friendly, when did it become necessary that every purported "family" film depend for its humor on the glories of defecation and flatulence? Yes, I probably thought poop jokes were funny when I was eight years old, but that doesn't mean a steady diet of them is healthy, or even humorous after the umpteenth repetition. And we wonder why today's twentysomething adults find stupid trash like the American Pie pictures hilarious.
On the plus side, the script doesn't take itself too seriously, and wrings a good amount of mileage out of its engagingly self-referential tone. Screenwriter Jordan Moffett pitches in several fun gags about the absent Brendan Fraser, and about the budget-restrictive, direct-to-video nature of the project—the product placement gag involving Shep's New Balance running shoes was cute, I thought. When the film attempts to pilfer parody material from outside sources—most notably Charlie's Angels, The Monkees, and Disney's own Tarzan—the bits don't coalesce quite as well.
Disney returns the Jungle King to DVD with a pleasing transfer and a smattering of extras. Framed in a "family-friendly widescreen" ratio of 1.78:1, the picture is bright, sharp, and as richly colorful as a live-action cartoon should be. A few compression artifacts rear their sparkly little heads at random junctures, but in the main, this is a better job of digitizing than this movie warrants.
While we're on the subject of better than deserved, I'm at a loss to explain why someone at Disney felt this disposable flick needed both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS soundtracks. Since they did, it's too bad the audio department didn't see fit to do more with the material. The soundfield affords plenty of expansion and activity in the early scenes, but about a third of the way into the movie, the surrounds mostly shut down, throwing all the focus to the forward speakers. It's almost as if the budget for fancy audio work tapped out midway through the production, so they simply tossed in the towel.
Leading the thin menu of supplementary features is a brief (nine minutes) making-of featurette, Behind the Trees. It's mostly stock Disney EPK fare, but tricked up with some of the film's voiceover narration devices. (Do we ever miss Paul Frees!)
Next up, you'll find a series of deleted scenes can be viewed with or without audio commentary by director David Grossman and producers Jordan Kerner and Gregg Hoffman. Viewers can access the sequences individually, or select a "play-all" mode. None of these clips add much to the experience, but the crew comments are welcome, sparse though they are. Also offered are a blessedly short (less than a minute) sampling of unfunny outtakes, a simplistic Q&A set-top game that can be played in its entirely in under ten minutes, and the usual Disney barrage of trailers and previews (for Brother Bear, Finding Nemo, The Santa Clause 2, Freaky Friday, and The Lion King 1-1/2).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Jay Ward's legacy has taken a beating from nostalgia-plundering film studios over the past decade or so. The pillaging began with the abysmal Boris and Natasha in 1992, and has continued with the criminally inept Dudley Do-Right, an Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle that was all the more inexcusable for its vileness because of the presence of such talents as Robert De Niro and Rene Russo, and these two tepid George of the Jungle swipes.
Just as it's sad to see an athlete playing out the string when his skills have long since eroded, it brings a tear to sensible eyes to witness Jay Ward's unique, savvy, and innovative cartoons being humbled by these ill-conceived knockoffs. I'd hate for anyone to shape an opinion of Willie Mays based on his pitiful final season with the New York Mets. In the same way, I'd hate to think that a new generation of audiences would base its impression of Ward's work on trifling, halfhearted movies than on his classic original works. His legacy deserves better.
Thank goodness there's no remake of Super Chicken, Hoppity Hooper, or my boyhood favorite, Crusader Rabbit, in the offing.
Its fascination with elephant dung and intestinal gases aside, George of the Jungle 2 delivers cheap, fluffy, mostly painfree chuckles the majority of the elementary school set will watch at least once without dozing off or whining for more popcorn. Better you should pick up the recently released DVD set of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons and give the tykes the real thing, and an education in the process. But if you and the kidlets find yourselves in desperate straits on a rainy night at the rental counter…as I said earlier, you could do worse.
The makers of George of the Jungle 2 are found guilty of robbing the grave of Jay Ward's creativity. Christopher Showerman is convicted of an additional count of channeling a Brendan Fraser performance, which must be a crime in some jurisdiction somewhere. The Disney Studios are again found in contempt of court for laxity in bringing recycled product to the DVD market. All parties are sentenced to six months at the circus, cleaning up behind the pachyderms. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Production Featurette: Behind the Trees
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