The tale is familiar, the message is familiar, but Disney's Tarzan delivers the goods. It's a thrilling example of state-of-the-art animated filmmaking that proves, yet again, that Disney is the leader when it comes to feature length animated cartoons.
Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan certainly has had a checkered screen history, to say the least. Most are aware of the entertaining MGM series starring Johnny Weissmuller of the 1930s, but there have been dozens of B-Movies, Saturday afternoon serials and at least three TV series, including a cheesy Filmation cartoon series. The property has been parodied in animation by Jay Ward as George Of The Jungle (revived last year by Disney as a live-action comedy) and by Belgium animator Jean-Paul Picha in his theatrical feature Tarzoon: Shame Of The Jungle (Tarzoon: La Honte De La Jungle, 1975).
But the African jungle has been successful terrain for the mouse house -- and Tarzan fits perfectly into a Disney themed trilogy with The Jungle Book (1967) and The Lion King (1994).
Disney's Version of a Classic The film begins with a spectacular shipwreck, where a man and woman escape to dry land. They make their home in the jungle, but are soon found dead by mama gorilla Kala (voiced by Glenn Close), who takes their infant child after a thrilling escape from a killer leopard. The human child is raised with the apes, demonstrated in a funny sequence in which young Tarzan (Alex D. Linz) tries to retrieve an elephant hair, causing a stampede which almost kills the gorilla clan. Leader of the apes, Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), is not amused and declares that Tarzan "will never be one of us." The boy soon sets about training himself to be the best ape of all.
Adult Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) proves himself by killing the leopard in a fierce battle. Soon after, Tarzan meets Jane, as man enters the forest. The Porter expedition arrives to study jungle apes, while evil guide Clayton (Brian Blessed) has plans to capture them for profit. The meeting of Tarzan and Jane (Minnie Driver), within a spectacular chase scene involving dozens of killer monkeys, is funny, scary, and breath-taking. Their quiet moments, when Tarzan realizes that he is more of her species than ape, are very well done.
The rest of the apes soon explore the Porter base camp and in the tradition of Stomp or Bring In Da Noise/Funk provide the only musical set piece, done in a playful manner that doesn't disrupt the "reality" of the situation.
The Porters educate Tarzan during a musical montage, and clearly the ape-man falls in love with Jane. Tarzan agrees to lead the party to his gorilla clan, but must subdue Clayton who almost shoots Kerchak. Kerchak expels Tarzan for betrayal and in sympathy for the outcast, Kala reveals Tarzan's true origin, taking him to his parents' tree house.
Tarzan (now dressed in his father's suit) joins the Porters to return with them to England. But at sea, they are captured and held while Clayton and his men go back to the jungle with guns and cages to catch apes. Best friends, gorilla Turk (Rosie O'Donnell) and elephant Tantor (Wayne Knight) rescue Tarzan and the Porters, who come to the rescue of the gorilla clan. After Clayton kills Kerchak, Tarzan hunts him down and the villain gets his just desserts. Jane and her father (Nigel Hawthorne) decide to stay in the jungle, and it ends with a spectacular vine-swinging shot of Tarzan and a now jungle attired Jane, living happily ever after.
The film stays true to recent Disney feature clichés (the outsider hero who questions his familial traditions, kid-friendly comic sidekicks, the stock villain, songs, etc.), but departs in some exciting ways. The music by Phil Collins is incorporated nicely into the story, for example, as a lullaby sung by Kala to baby Tarzan, or, another instance, the sequence when the gorillas discover the Porters' camp and explore it musically while comically tearing it apart. The good news is that Tarzan and Jane never stop the story to sing.
Technology and Performance Combine
The visuals are powerful on all fronts, particularly this new CGI "Deep Canvas" technique which puts the characters into what look like three-dimensional background sets. One early shot, from Kala's POV (point of view) as she looks into little Lord Greystoke's cradle through fallen drapery is masterfully done. This tiny moment is an example of subtle realism that this CGI technology achieves. Moving backgrounds have come of age. This type of shot, which dates back to silent Felix the Cat cartoons, has been perfected with astounding shots of Tarzan "surfing" through the trees. The trees look painted, as any traditional cartoon background would look, and yet we can climb into them, move around them, feel them. This is the most exciting use of the computer as a tool in creating animation, and for cartoon storytelling, in the past decade.
The performances of the lead characters are particularly good. For Tarzan, the performance is in the animation. Glen Keane's strong animation and poses are unlike any other screen portrayal of the character. When Jane calls him "an ape man," we totally understand what she means. He is half animal, half man, and a total creature of animation. His large soulful eyes (as "Charlie Dog" used to say) and flaring nostrils (how can I not mention those?) communicate his inner thoughts better than his limited dialogue. Jane is my favorite character in the show. I love her character design and personality which are the best parts of Megera and Ariel combined, and Minnie Driver gives a true performance that is both touching and funny. Her casting was a stroke of genius. Rosie O'Donnell also stands out as gorilla best friend, Turk. The comedy relief is well done and never feels padded. Last year, I felt Eddie Murphy as Mushu (in Mulan) was strictly stunt casting and his "antics" stalled the story; this time out the comic characters were all true to the situations and storyline. If Tarzan lacks anything it's perhaps the traditional touch of Disney fantasy that usually enhances these productions. There are no genies, dragons or talking candlesticks (although there is a clever in-joke involving a teapot). But this is a story that might have been marred by such an intrusion (as was Disney's Hunchback Of Notre Dame). This is a fantastic tale based on real characters, real motives and real danger. If Walt Disney Feature Animation wants to evolve beyond the musical fantasies it's most famous for,Tarzan is a terrific step in that direction.
Jerry Beck is a cartoon historian, writer and animation studio executive. He was editor of The 50 Greatest Cartoons (Turner), recently co-wrote Warner Bros. Animation Art (Levin) and is currently a freelance writer and consultant through his own company, Cartoon Research Co.