A Tale of Two Kings By David MacGregor. It was one of those epiphany things-a sudden flash of insight in which the inner workings of the universe are revealed in a single, blinding instant...
It was one of those epiphany things-a sudden flash of insight in which the inner workings of the universe are revealed in a single, blinding instant. It came, in the happenstance fashion of most epiphanies, while watching “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.” This was not exactly a viewing experience that I would have chosen of my own volition, but for reasons that are now obscure to me, my wife and I had decided to breed. The product of that decision was, at that point in his life, keenly interested in the antics of Pooh bear and pals. As he watched the animated wind-swept animals with rapt attention, I was watching Piglet become airborne in something approaching a dazed stupor. But even in that that state it became clear to me that what I was watching was, in fact, not too bad. Heck, it was good. In fact, it was clever, innovative, and engaging on multiple levels-in short, all those things that most movies are not.
After that day, I began paying closer attention to the kinds of shows and movies that are essentially targeted towards children. A good deal of them are formulaic crap: “Power Rangers,” “The Smurfs,” and, of course, “Pokémon” (which is little more than Pit Bull fighting for children). Still, there are programs like “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Animaniacs.” Likewise, there exist movies like Toy Story, The Iron Giant and Babe: Pig in the City. Not only are these well done, they bear repeated viewings due to the sheer number of interesting details and nuances packed into them. The question became-are movies targeted at children generally more clever, engaging, and satisfying aesthetic experiences than movies targeted at adults?
It seemed an almost heretical idea, but once considered, it was easy to see how that might occur. A movie targeted at an adult audience is quite often designed to attract as wide a demographic as possible. Thus, movies aimed at adults tend to be pretty homogenous. If it’s a comedy, it needs some romance and action. If it’s a romance, it needs some comedy and action. And if it’s an action film, well, you get the picture. Adults can stand at the ticket counter of the local multiplex and choose from a wide array of films, even if they aren’t substantially different from one another.
On the other hand, at any given time, there will only be one or two movies for children at the same multiplex. Children don’t have as many choices. They can either watch what’s showing or go home and plug in a video (or, I suppose, actually engage in an activity that doesn’t involve passively sitting there and letting images flicker onto their retinas). While that might sound somewhat unfair and constraining, the irony is that movies made for children have considerably more creative latitude than those created for adults because the audience is built in. The only necessary genre obligations include bright colors, festive sets, a little bit of action, and an occasional song and dance. Once those obligations have been fulfilled, filmmakers have free rein to bandy about other elements for their own amusement, often with wildly inventive results.
In order to test this theory, I sought an adult film and a children’s film that were roughly contemporaneous and had basically the same story-line. Happily enough, I encountered a pair of films from 1997, which told the same story of an upper-class girl being pushed into a marriage with a brutish cad by her status-conscious mother. In both films, the prospective husbands display their villainy by smoking, slicking their hair back, being condescending to everyone around them, possessing evil sidekicks, and ultimately resorting to physical violence. With the wedding date set, the girl appears to have resigned herself to her fate. This beautiful flower seems destined to be suffocated by this terrible man and the patriarchal social structure he represents.
Ah, but then a miracle occurs! By sheer chance, our female friend meets another man who is far beneath her social class. Despite this chasm, this new man in her life is imbued with a certain raw nobility, so much so that he finds himself referred to as a “king” in the course of the story. True, he is a little rough around the edges and lacking in the finer social graces, but he has a good heart and looks to die for. While she is weighed down by family ties and responsibilities, he is an orphan without ties to anyone. With him she escapes stuffy drawing rooms and is able to feel the wind whipping through her hair, metaphorically and literally. He teaches her how to dance, to love, and finally to live. Conversely, he also enters her world, dressing up quite elegantly to play the part. Given all the love in the air, it’s hardly surprising that jewelry is bestowed upon the heroine, but here both films go against convention in that the significant piece of jewelry in question is not a ring, but a necklace. Finally, both films feature a narrator who doesn’t merely narrate, but who is also is part of the story. Given the large number of similarities, they hardly seem like different films at all, but I assure you that there are small points here and there that make Titanic and George of the Jungle stand on their own.
The King of the Jungle
George of the Jungle features a poor man’s Tarzan who make a regular habit of slamming into trees while swinging on a vine. The movie is fun to watch on a number of levels. It begins with a cartoon, which pays homage to the original “George of the Jungle” television series produced by Jay Ward and Bill Scott. At the same time, this gesture makes the audience aware that the film will operate as a live-action cartoon.
Director Sam Weisman reaches deep into his cinematic bag of tricks to create a cartoonish effect in a number of scenes. After George (Brendan Fraser) defeats a lion in battle he spins the beast over his head like a high-speed propeller. When George has his head slammed between the bars of a cage, animated stars circle his bruised cranium. At one point the narrator (Keith Scott) objects that Shep the Elephant (a rather canine pachyderm) chewing on a dog bone is “too much,” and the dog bone magically blinks out of existence. If Georges Méliès had lived to the age of one hundred and thirty-five, this is the kind of film he might have turned out.
George of the Jungle fulfills its “kids’ movie” obligations early and often. There is a gorilla that passes wind, elephants urinating on bad guys, and an orangutan who blows raspberries. Bad guys slip on banana peels, get kicked in the groin, poked in the rear end and, finally, the major bad guy falls face first into a pile of elephant dung. These are all classic routines. However, the filmmakers often go above and beyond the gag itself to take the joke into another realm entirely. For instance, in the aforementioned elephant dung scene, one of the African porters turns to the camera and states, “Bad guy falls in poop. Classic element of physical comedy. Now comes the part where we throw back our heads and laugh.” And so they do. It’s a clever, unexpected, new twist on an old gag, and it’s funny.
The film qualifies as a card-carrying post-modern work in numerous other scenes. It’s relentlessly ironic and self-aware and never pretends to be anything more than a movie. Characters regularly break the “fourth wall” to address the audience and at one point the bad guys stare skyward to bicker with the film’s narrator. In his slightly-overblown-for-comic-effect-tones, the narrator assures the audience, “Don’t worry, nobody dies in this story.” When the bad guy fires a gun at George we learn that “Poor George was really shot, but he can’t die, because let’s face it, he’s the hero.” The narrator has some of the best lines in the movie ranging, from alliterative phrases (“as the tired tusker teethed”), to purple prose (“a drink the venal Van de Groot would be begging to imbibe”), to stating the readily obvious in as obvious a fashion as possible (“An ape named Ape was caged in a cage”). Keeping in the post-modern vein, the film borrows freely from culture past and present, referencing such seemingly disparate items as Hamlet, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The Lion King.
In short, George of the Jungle is a funhouse of a film, with a clever script by Dana Olsen and Audrey Wells, imaginative direction, and fine comic performances from the entire cast, especially Brendan Fraser as George and Leslie Mann as his new love, Ursula Stanhope.
The King of the World
Titanic, by comparison, will probably never be referred to as a “funhouse of a film.” Nor should it be. Titanic is about the most famous sea disaster of all time. The film reveals the catastrophic hubris of Western Civilization that found full flower in World War I (which began two years later). Culturally, George of the Jungle was “just another film” while Titanic was an event. It received tremendous media coverage for months, first because of the amount of money it took to make the film, later for the amount of money it made and, finally, for the number of Academy Awards it won.
Just as George of the Jungle sets its tone by opening with a cartoon, Titanic opens similarly, with sepia-toned images conveying an elegant past. Once the story and the ship are underway, it’s clear that the film has a number of things going for it. Terrific sets, beautiful costumes, and state of the art special effects are all suffused in sweeping camera movements and the sound of heavenly angels singing in the background.
How the audience views the romantic relationship between Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) is undoubtedly related to one’s age. There is no more powerful or sappy story than that of young lovers being torn apart by events they cannot control. Younger viewers may ache and weep along with the beautiful young couple. Older viewers, on the other hand, may be slightly put off by the clanging dialogue and wooden acting.
“You have a gift, Jack. You do,” burbles the infatuated Rose.
“You’re the most amazingly astounding girl...woman I’ve ever known,” returns the equally enamored Jack. It’s unfair to be too harsh here, as teenage lovers aren’t generally known for being dazzlingly articulate.
The downside of Titanic lay in its laborious attempts to fulfill standard adult movie conventions. For the most part, writer/director James Cameron doesn’t seem so interested in characters as he is in “types.” There’s the controlling mother, the stoic captain, the plucky middle-aged woman, the excitable immigrant, and so on. If these characters stood sideways they would disappear. Cameron has claimed co-writing credit on other scripts (Aliens and Terminator), but here he’s on his own, and it’s almost as if he didn’t want things like characters with depth and engaging dialogue to interfere with the film’s visuals. And they don’t. The most compelling character is the ship itself.
Beyond that, convention dictates that good and bad must be delineated with all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the back of the head. This is most clearly exemplified in the character of Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), Rose’s putative fiancé. One would think that he is bad enough as a controlling, sexist, elitist, money-mad capitalist. Well, no. Not only is he the wrong man for the free-spirited Rose, he just happens to be a murderous psychopath as well. Who knew?
Still, those are minor annoyances compared to Cameron’s need to fulfill the Holy Grail of Hollywood conventions-character arc. Yes, our characters must learn something in the course of their journey. They must be wiser, more self-aware, ad nauseam. Of course, in Titanic there is a bit of a problem here; namely, who can arc? Most of the supporting characters are out because they are little more than costumes that move, and costumes can’t arc. Jack doesn’t arc so much as he provides the impetus for Rose to arc. What Rose learns is to trust her own judgement and to be her own person just as she learns that psychopathic mine owners are bad and loving artists are good. One hundred ninety-four minutes of film and there’s only one arc? That will never do.
So, where does Cameron turn to fulfill his arc responsibilities? To the framing story; that is, the treasure hunters who are trying to retrieve the valuable necklace called “The Heart of the Ocean.” When they’re introduced at the beginning of the film the treasure hunters are personified by two characters-Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and Lewis Bodine (Lewis Abernathy). Brock is the leader of the expedition and poor Brock is a soulless man. He mouths platitudes about the Titanic for the benefit of rolling cameras, but grins when his henchman Lewis tells him, “You are so full of shit, boss.” Lewis is even worse-a vulgar techie given to wearing bad t-shirts. As he uses a robot submersible to search for the necklace, Lewis is literally slavering, his tongue lolling out of his mouth in greedy anticipation. When he finds out that the dignified, elderly Rose is coming aboard their treasure-hunting ship claiming to be the girl in the picture they retrieved from the Titanic, he cries, “She’s a goddamned liar! Some nut-case seeking money or publicity!”
Clearly, Brock and Lewis have a lesson to learn, and learn it they do. As the elderly Rose relates the conclusion of her story at the end of the film, the treasure-hunters sit before her in mute admiration. Lewis is a transformed man, a tear trickling down his hairy cheek as he listens to Rose’s final words. Brock goes so far as to heave the victory cigar he brought with him (which he intended to light up when he found the necklace) into the Atlantic Ocean. “Three years I thought of nothing except Titanic,” he laments. “But I never got it. I never let it in.” It’s a painful lesson Brock and Lewis have learned, but no less painful than having to witness it. James Cameron may well be a powerful writer/director, but apparently he’s not powerful enough to lift his story and characters out of the suction of trite clichés that suck so many films down.
As a comedy, George of the Jungle is less beholden to the false idol of “arc” at which so many films feel obliged to worship. Instead, George of the Jungle has a bit of fun with another classic Hollywood idol-“closure.” Films for adults rather obsessively have to tie up every loose end in the film and of course, Titanic is no exception. We have to know what happened to the Heart of the Ocean necklace, even if it was little more than a device created to get us into the story. By comparison, as George of the Jungle winds to a close, we see that the happy fate of George and Ursula seems assured. That seems to settle it and the film should now be allowed to draw to a close. But wait! What about Ape, the talking gorilla so ably portrayed through the urbane tones of John Cleese? The film seems to tear and burn as it comes to a grinding halt, because while George and Ursula may be together, the fate of Ape is left hanging, and that simply won’t do. So the film starts up again and shows us Ape starring in a Las Vegas revue singing “My Way.” Now the film can end.
In essence, what occurs in some of the films aimed at children is that a duality is achieved. Looking at the film from the perspective of a six-year-old, one sees one thing, but from an adult perspective, one sees something quite different. The child and adult observe the same film, but what they perceive is a product of their social and cultural knowledge. If a children’s film does verge into more adult content it has to go about it in an elliptical fashion so as not to shock and confuse younger viewers. For example, when a clearly smitten George watches Ursula sleeping he says, “George having stirring of special feelings right now-good thing she same species.” It’s funny, but it’s funny in a coded way, and part of the fun is in decoding it. Films oriented towards older viewers rarely achieve this duality. They are one thing and that is either good or bad. Ultimately, its own self-importance and economic expectations weighs Titanic down. There is no need for the dialogue to be nuanced, coded, or complex in any way. Adult films are generally one-note pieces, and if you like that particular note, then you like that film. The best films that include children among their target demographic are varied in the kind of material they present and how they present it.
So, in fifty years, when people settle down on their futuristic sofas to take in a movie, will they be more likely to watch George of the Jungle or Titanic? Which film, as the title song to Titanic says, will “go on”? At the very least, Titanic will continue to appeal to adolescent girls for a good while because of its classic story line of a young woman’s search for love and happiness against all odds. Still, as the years go by, the appeal of the film will diminish. When the special effects no longer seem that special, when Leo DiCaprio is a senior citizen who has just had his prostate removed, what will be left that is worth watching? By comparison, George of the Jungle has a more timeless quality to it, and in the end, the King of the Jungle has it all over the King of the World. But who knows? Perhaps all is not lost for the story of the great ship and its ill-fated voyage. Perhaps one day they will make a movie about the Titanic for children. Now that will be something.
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