It’s strange to think parts of the 1990s are now more than two decades in the past… especially when you realize your childhood classics are now more than a quarter century old. Yikes. George of the Jungle is that formative favorite for me. How has it already been 25 years? A zany, live-action remake of the classic cartoon series of the same name, George of the Jungle, proves surprisingly complex when revisiting it through a 2022 lens. Multiple topics emerge during a rewatch. History, nostalgia, Brendan Fraser’s star persona, tone and even the female gaze all pop up as important questions. This isn’t just another children’s movie. Does it hold up? Read on, kids, read on.
George of the Jungle tells the story of Ursula Stanhope (Leslie Mann), a wealthy heiress who, while touring Africa, finds herself in peril (when she comes face to face with a lion.) However, she’s soon rescued by George (Brendan Fraser), the self-proclaimed “King of Jungle.” She’s immediately swept up into a relationship with the strapping jungle man in a loincloth. How can you not be? The only problem… she’s already engaged to another man. However, the man in question, Lyle Van de Groot (Thomas Haden Church), takes offense to being thrown over so quickly. Will these two crazy kids be able to make it work? Holland Taylor, Richard Roundtree, John Cleese and Greg Cutwell co-star in the picture. Sam Weisman directs the film from a script by Audrey Wells and Dana Olsen.
Jay Ward and Nostalgia
Looking at Hollywood today, 1980s nostalgia is all the rage. You kids out there might not realize that in the 1990s, it was 1960s nostalgia that was hip. This is particularly true in 1997. George of the Jungle emerged as one of many Jay Ward cartoons receiving live-action cinematic remakes over the course of the decade. Seasoned viewers might also remember Dudley Do-Right, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and later Mr. Peabody and Sherman. These all hit the box office within a few years of each other.
Jay Ward stands as a zanier alternative to legendary cartoon houses like Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers. Ward pushed his way into the industry beginning in the late 1950s thanks to creating the cartoon Crusader Rabbit. While his work on the series did not last long, it allowed him to grow his creativity and expand into the shows, which eventually defined his reputation.
Together with co-creator Bill Scott and an ultra-talented team of voice actors led by June Foray and Paul Frees, Jay Ward helped define cartoons in the 1960s. With their work on shows like George of the Jungle, Super Chicken, The Bullwinkle Show and others, Jay Ward stands toe to toe alongside the titans of the era.
George of the Jungle hit the airwaves in 1967. It may only have lasted one season, but the candy-colored delight had serious staying power. Perhaps it’s the theme song that transcended decades. Or maybe it’s the fact the show parodies the Tarzan franchise, which itself remained in the spotlight for more than 100 years. Perhaps it’s just because it’s great. However, in the almost sixty years since its debut, George of the Jungle regularly received the remake treatment. Those who don’t remember the 1997 film version might remember its 2003 sequel. The series also received several TV remakes, including a revamp in 2007 and later in 2015.
When faced with bringing a cartoon to life in 1997, Sam Weisman’s creative team hit a nostalgic home run. As a result, George of the Jungle emerges as the most faithful (and best) entry into the Jay Ward Cinematic Universe.
Updating a cartoon to live action is never an easy undertaking. With characters Ape (John Cleese) and George’s “big, gray peanut-loving poochie” Shep (who is, in reality, an elephant), George of the Jungle doesn’t shy away from playing in the world of the silly. In fact, even the narrator gets into the fun. There are a number of delightful moments where the “Voice of God” narrator engages in silly banter with the characters. It’s unique and fun and leaves you snickering.
These creative choices play a vital role in capturing George of the Jungle’s versatile tone. It’s an oversimplification to call this a kids movie. Sure, it appeals to children. At the same time, though, the script has an impeccable sense of nostalgia. It is mindful that the name George of the Jungle would be equally important to baby boomers (who were having children in 1997). With branding harkening back to their own childhoods, it only makes sense to appeal to all age groups.
In fact, this versatile silliness is actually a callback to Jay Ward’s creative style. When looking at all his cartoons, from George of the Jungle to Rocky and Bullwinkle, Ward always possesses an awareness that his cartoons appeal to more than children. They were, of course, flashy and zany for the kids, but plenty of jokes were added for the adults.
King of Jungle!
As the child of two baby boomers, George of the Jungle hit the right spot for me in 1997. I was familiar with the content. In fact, I was raised on Jay Ward cartoons. I still have old Rocky and Bullwinkle VHS tapes lying around. This created a perfect storm. In an early showing of passionate fandom, I remember watching George of the Jungle more than a few times in theaters.
In fact, this is probably the movie responsible for bringing Brendan Fraser into my consciousness. I was, of course, all about The Mummy when that contemporary classic hit theaters in 1999 and I would discover Encino Man around the same time. In 1997 though, the up-and-coming Fraser WAS my George of the Jungle.
Looking at Fraser’s acting career, George of the Jungle continues the typecasting he struggled with early on. He played a lot of… dim-witted characters. However, what shines through looking back on George of the Jungle is the heart Fraser injects into his portrayal. He doesn’t allow himself to be caught up in George’s supposed simplicity. Rather, Fraser understands this is a living, breathing man with desires and feelings. He’s never seen a woman before, and Ursula rocks his tiny world. Fraser gives a genuine and layered performance. This is something which isn’t always the case when looking back on the big-screen Tarzan’s in film history.
For many (millennials, anyway), Brendan Fraser is an integral part of 1990s cinema. After George of the Jungle, he went on to play in The Mummy franchise, Blast from the Past and Bedazzled, to name a few. He worked steadily into the 2000s but gradually stepped away from Hollywood with little fanfare. Like so many before him, Fraser became a cautionary tale and the subject of many “where are they now” articles.
Luckily, we are in the midst of what has been delightfully titled a “Fraser-issance.” The actor gradually began a return to the industry after a poignant 2018 GQ profile. In the article, he describes being sexually assaulted, which led to his departure from Hollywood. Since the article, Fraser cautiously emerged back into the spotlight. He’s been busy landing impressive roles in hotly anticipated movies. He plays the lead in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, which is currently landing some early awards buzz. Meanwhile, he’s set to co-star in Martin Scorsese‘s upcoming movie Killers of the Flower Moon, which is set to hit the festival circuit in 2023.
I’m sure many will agree that it’s a joy to have Brendan Fraser back.
What is it with Chicks and Horses?
At the same time, the heart Brendan Fraser injects into his performance strengthens George’s bond with Leslie Mann’s Ursula. It goes without saying, this is a kid’s movie, so it’s not a “hot” romance per se. However, for a work directed by a man, George of the Jungle is surprisingly tuned in with Ursula’s perspective. In fact, it’s even more complicated than that. We don’t talk about how unique this movie actually is.
As mentioned, this is the 1990s, and this is a family film. So in rewatching this through more experienced eyes, I was stunned upon my revisit to discover just how “female gaze-ey” George of the Jungle is. Even in 2022, films still struggle with “the gaze.” So when remembering this movie hit theaters in 1997, the frank nature of the movie’s female gaze feels almost subversive.
For those who might not be familiar, the term “female gaze” stems from a foundational film theory, “the male gaze.” The idea (initially proposed by film scholar Laura Mulvey) hypothesizes a majority of Hollywood cinema depicts its narratives through an unconscious male perspective. The majority of filmmakers are male, so the camera inherits their “gaze.” Even 25 years after George of the Jungle, we still fight these battles of representation in Hollywood. Representation matters.
While the movie may be named after George, this is really Ursula’s story. The heiress enters the narrative first, and as such, she is the audience’s entry point. Not only does George enter into her story, but interestingly the film has no qualms about turning George into an object of desire for not just Ursula but for the other women in the narrative. They gaze unabashedly at George throughout the movie, and the film seems to have no problem with it.
This is seen most comedically when George accompanies Ursula to her engagement party. In a tight shot, the audience sees George playing in a corral with a team of beautiful horses. His shirt is open. His hair is flowing. It looks like a romance novel. As the shot pans back, dozens of women are visible, staring in awe at the scene. The thirst is palpable as they talk about his “sensual intelligence.” The shot pans further back to see male party guests also watching. One puffs on a cigar (Spencer Garrett) and delivers the punchline, “What is it with chicks and horses, huh?” These women, and with them, the audience, see something in George the film’s men aren’t able to. George is something special.
When all is said and done, more than 25 years after its release, it’s incredible to see just how well George of the Jungle holds up. This isn’t always the case with the films of our youth. Rewatching this silly, nostalgic kid’s movie, it’s staggering to see how much complexity is injected into the film’s narrative. Was all this present in 1997? That’s difficult to say. However, not many live-action cartoon remakes can be called subversively aligned with the female gaze (especially in the 1990s). From the female gaze to its treatment of nostalgia, it seems this kid’s movie isn’t just for kids after all.
George of the Jungle and with it Brendan Fraser were and continue to be cultural treasures. We didn’t deserve them, but it’s so great to have Brendan Fraser back. Never let him leave again, Hollywood.
George of the Jungle is available to stream on Disney+.
This article was originally published on 8/17/22.