The right way to adapt a cartoon to live action

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The goofy, vine-shaking George first appeared on screens in cartoon form in 1967 with the series George of the Junglecreated by Neighborhood Jay and Bill Scott – of which the latter also voiced the titular George – as an anthology consisting of three segments: George of the Jungle, smooth tomand Great Chicken. Unsurprisingly, the titular character became the most popular and was rebooted into a solo show forty years later in 2007. The character came to life, however, with the 1997 live-action big-screen adaptation starring Brendan Fraser as a beloved character. Walt Disney Pictures produced the film which became a huge box office success. Reviews – both at the time of release and in retrospect – have been mostly favorable, which is relatively unusual for live-action anime adaptations. Movies like the ones from 1994 The Flintstones1999 Inspector Gadgetand, more recently, 2021 Tom and Jerry have seen a bad reputation for bringing cartoon favorites to life on the big screen. However, George of the Jungle nails the weirdness of the cartoon and results in a movie that’s still as charming and fun as it was when it first came out.

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Of course, George’s inspiration came from Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ the character of Tarzan. The couple’s stories are virtually identical, with both being raised in the jungle and using vines for transportation. George even has his own version of Tarzan’s scream, made famous by Johnny Weissmuller in his Tarzan films from 1932 to 1948. Like Burroughs’ iconic character, George’s appearance was inspired by the American bodybuilder george Eiferman. Thirty years after the seventeenth and final episode of the cartoon series aired, a live-action adaptation has begun filming. Rather than simply recreating the series’ most memorable moments, the film opted to create an original story with several nods to Ward and Scott’s series. The film does a great job of being nostalgic and satisfying for fans of the series, while being enjoyable for those who have never watched it. It opens with a short animated sequence that has a very similar animation style to the show, and is also accompanied by the voice of a narrator (Keith Scott), which continues to play a large role. The animated opening describes George’s origins: he was a baby passenger on a plane that crashed in the jungle and was unwittingly left in a tree. The brightness and joy of the animation contrasts with the event, but seeing a smiling baby George swinging from vine to vine as the undeniably catchy theme song begins to play is enough to put a smile on everyone’s face.


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Brendan Fraser brings George to life

True to the style of the ’60s series, giant title cards swoop down and colorful lights flash across the screen as it opens. George also remains a baby during this sequence and becomes an adult as the film transitions from cartoon to live-action. Director Sam Weisman keeps George as a mystery at first. He is only called the White Monkey and rather mysteriously described as a bloodthirsty native legend who stands seven feet tall and roams the jungle in search of a mate. Prior to his first appearance, there are numerous shots of his vantage point as he runs and swings through the trees before finally crashing into one. George makes his first proper appearance eleven minutes later as he heroically rushes to save Ursula (Leslie Man) of a lion. The fight between George and the lion is a perfect introduction to the now adult George. He speaks in broken, unintelligent English and fights using outlandish wrestling moves, with each hit that lands accompanied by a cartoonish sound effect. This comedic fight scene repeatedly returns to a monkey who finds the battle amusing. This establishes George’s connections to the animals of the jungle as it is also later revealed that George knows the lion he fought.


George’s animal friends

While the film doesn’t follow a specific storyline from the series, it certainly includes many elements of it. The humor doesn’t rely on the audience already having knowledge of the cartoon and translates extremely well into live-action, mostly through the actors’ performances. Fraser’s ear-to-ear smile and genuine likability make him the perfect embodiment of the incompetent Tarzan-wannabe, and there are plenty of opportunities here for him to show off his slapstick skills as he bumps into trees, stumbles on doormats and thrashes wildly in a desperate attempt at flirtation. Fraser completely steals the movie, and it’s hard to imagine anyone better in the role, as evidenced by the inferior direct-to-video sequel in which he was replaced. The way the film portrays the series’ supporting characters is true to the source material, specifically, the talking monkey named Monkey (voiced by John Cleese) and Shep, George’s pet elephant, who acts like an excitable puppy.


In Shep’s first scene, George refers to him as a dog and calls him to him, and he obliges. He comes pounding through the trees and sits obediently when told to. The self-parody humor is at its best in a later moment where Shep is seen with an oversized bone in his mouth and is quickly told to “Lose it!” by the narrator. Shep’s screen time in the film is limited, and much of the film’s budget went to CGI to make him behave like a puppy. The Ape character is educated and much smarter than George, and Cleese’s voice is suitably sarcastic. Ape is not CGI and is instead physically interpreted by Nameer El-Kadi in a monkey costume. Jim Henson’s puppeteers worked on the animatronics of the monkeys’ faces with admirable results. Real monkeys, lions and a toucan bird were also used.


Add to cartoon world

Inevitably, the film made many non-cartoon additions. Smaller changes included Ursula being blonde as opposed to redhead, the elimination of District Commissioner Alistair, and George’s phrasebook to animal calls that he often gets wrong. The film’s main antagonist, Lyle (Thomas Haden Churchlisten)), is an original character and Ursula’s fiancée. He is arrogant, cowardly, and self-centered, and is very possessive of Ursula. Episodes of the series saw George take on many villains, but the two most frequent were a pair of British and American hunters named Tiger and Weevil. Although the dastardly duo are not in the live-action adaptation, they are replaced by Max and Thor (Greg Cruttwell and Abraham Benroubi) that have similar characteristics. The show also included a running gag of George forgetting that he lives in a tree house, but this does not appear in the film. Also, although George’s phrasebook on animal calls is not included, there is a reference to it in a scene in which Lyle uses a Swahili phrasebook to talk to a group of Ugandan tourist guides and unknowingly said nonsense.

1997 George of the Jungle serves as a prequel to the cartoon classic and has now itself become a delightful trip down memory lane for many audiences. Her self-awareness is her best asset, and she deftly serves to respectfully parody the cartoon series — which in itself is a parody. So, as a live-action parody of a parody, the film holds its own. It couldn’t be concluded other than with George’s cheerful catchphrase “George just lucky, I guess.” With irresistible charm, enthusiastic performances and as many fourth-wall breaks as could possibly be crammed into a 92-minute film, George of the Jungle really demonstrated the right way to adapt a cartoon for live action.

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