Brendan Fraser, Leslie Mann

When our hero, George of the Jungle (Fraser), proffers a ropy vine to a lovely heiress (Mann) he has just saved from an attacking lion and invites her to "Swing, swing, swing," the invitation proves impossible to resist. Why try? George of the Jungle is the most welcome surprise of the summer. Among all the heavily hyped would-be blockbusters of the season, this genial goofball of a movie wins you over with its silly, let's-just-have-some-fun charm. Even adults, if they let themselves, will find it a hoot.

A live-action version of the Saturday morning cartoon that ran on ABC from 1967 to 1970 and then in syndication, George follows the comic adventures of its vine-swinging, loincloth-wearing Tarzan wannabe. Raised from infancy (after surviving a plane crash) in the African jungle by an ape, George grows up to be a handsome, well-built fellow with an unfortunate propensity, when traveling by vine, for bashing into trees. In the movie he falls (in every sense of the word) for the heiress, who whisks him off to San Francisco and introduces him to Armani. Back in Africa, however, his mentor, a talking ape, is kidnapped by evil poachers, and George must return to rescue him.

The film won me over early on when an African guide plunged from a rope bridge and, as his flailing body hurtled toward a roaring river below, the booming voice of the movie's narrator announced reassuringly, "Don't worry. Nobody dies in this movie. They just get really big boo-boos." Cut to the guide, laughing with pals around the campfire that night, a big Band-Aid on his forehead.

George just may make Fraser (Encino Man and Mrs. Winterbourne) a star. He's darn cute and manages to convey George's fundamental dimness without cutting down on his likability. And it doesn't hurt that he has the best pair of male legs to grace a screen since a kilted Mel Gibson pranced across the heath a couple of years ago in Braveheart. (PG)

Tim Robbins, Martin Lawrence

Briefly put: Been there, done that. Nothing to Lose is a broad, mechanical comedy about two guys who bond after Lawrence, unemployed and desperate to feed his family, tries to car-jack Robbins, a successful Los Angeles advertising executive who has just discovered that his wife (Kelly Preston) is cheating on him with his boss. After a side trip to Arizona and a practice holdup of a gas station, the two men join forces to rob Robbins's boss. Think Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places or Murphy and Nick Nolte in 48 HRS., and you'll get Nothing's familiar drift. Writer-director Steve Oedekerk (Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls) sets up his jokes with all the subtlety of a hippo checking out books from a library. In the meager-plus column are an appealing performance by Robbins, an energetic one from Lawrence and a couple of inspired comic scenes, including one in which Oedekerk shows up as a security guard with a penchant for disco-dancing on the job. (R)

Nick Scotti, Anthony Barrile

When a young pizza maker (Scotti) in The Bronx begins scanning the classified ads for apartments in Manhattan, he's such a naif that he thinks GWM stands for Guy With Money. Gosh, is he surprised when he discovers that his prospective new roomie (Barrile), an actor, is gay. Kiss Me Guido, a slight comedy about sexual identity, recalls leering sex farces of the early '70s, when the hero had to pretend to be gay to avoid the draft or dissuade an ardent female pursuer. Although Guido has amusing moments and serviceable performances, it never overcomes its improbable premise. (R)

Judi Dench, Billy Connolly

In 1861 the death of her husband, Prince Albert, plunged Queen Victoria into a grief bordering on the pathological. The inconsolable widow retired from public view and neglected her duties. Then, in what amounts to a very slim chapter in British history, John Brown, a Scottish horse groomer, began to take her for pony rides in the fresh air. Victoria responded to the exercise and Brown's gruff charm. She seems, even, to have fallen in love. Brown, meanwhile, became overprotective and took command of scheduling her life. This feels a little like Alexandra and Rasputin, only Brown has a tidier beard.

As Victoria, Dench is magnificent. But Connolly (best known here for Head of the Class) makes a terribly one-dimensional Brown, bellowing at his queen, "Why dooncha listen to me, wooman?" Clearly, this lout could never have gained control of the royal Filofax. (PG)

Martin Short, Kathleen Turner

Half kiddie film, half adult satire, this unfocused comedy begins when little Mara Wilson wishes that her actor dad (Robert Pastorelli) will win a Broadway role. The resulting duel of magical skills pits Wilson's unorthodox fairy godmother (Short) against a wicked witch with a heart of alum (Turner). Turner has her moments, but the real comic spell is cast by Amanda Plummer, who plays a dog turned humanoid. (PG)

>Victor Nunez

FEELING THE BUZZ

FILMMAKER VICTOR NUNEZ ADMITS THAT he still cringes at the underlit look of a few shots in his current art-house hit, Ulee's Gold. At the same time, the tiny budget ($2.7 million) that hampered the technical finish of his charming character study of a backwater Florida beekeeper (played with maturity and grace by Peter Fonda) had little impact on the movie's soul. Even with "the luxury" of more time and money, he says, "I'm not sure it would have been a better movie in terms of the human emotional quality." And that, for Nunez, 52, is what counts.

In a special-effects and star-driven movie world where, says Nunez, "if you don't have box office over $100 million, you've bombed," he has steered his own very different course. Raised in Tallahassee, Fla., by his mother, an art teacher (she had left his father, a Peruvian artist), Nunez graduated from Antioch College in Ohio and studied film at UCLA before setting out as an indy filmmaker in 1969. His first feature, Gal Young 'Un, made in 1979 with an NEA grant, was a minor critical success, as was Ruby in Paradise (1993), which he made with a small family inheritance and which helped launch Ashley Judd's career. Nunez, who still lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Cynthia, a painter (son Vincent, 28, is a fledgling filmmaker), admits there have been hard times when he thought of giving up and thanks "the film gods" for Ulee's success. "I come from this 'art' tradition where if you're successful, it means you're not being original enough," he jokes. "Maybe I've finally blown it."

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Don Sider.