|Tarzan (Special Edition) (1999)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 18 October 2005|
It's surprising that this is the first animated feature about Tarzan of the Apes. The durable creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs has been done in almost every other medium from books (beginning in 1912), to radio, to movie features and movie serials, TV series, etc. etc. The story is a natural for animation -- and it's been done splendidly by the Disney team. The good parts of "Tarzan" (the first movie to have that one-word title) are so exhilarating, entertaining and exuberant that it's not hard to overlook the weaker parts. "Tarzan" is not the equal of "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Lion King," still the two high-water marks of recent Disney features, but is instead at the top of the second tier, far better than weaklings like "Pocohontas" and "Hercules," but perhaps just a shade under "Mulan."
In rough outline, "Tarzan" follows the plot of Burroughs' first Tarzan novel, Tarzan of the Apes. The screenplay is credited to Tab Murphy and Bob Tzudiker & Noni White, though it's probable that the script was the product of many more hands than theirs. The film was directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck.
The best part of "Tarzan," almost without dialog, is the first half hour or so, in which Kala (Glenn Close!), a mother gorilla, loses her own baby and finds a human child in the treetop cabin where his parents lie dead, victims of a marauding leopard. Kala adopts the baby, but Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), leader of the gorilla clan, refuses to acknowledge the cheerful infant as his son.
As years pass, Tarzan becomes friends with gorilla child Terk (Rosie O'Donnell) and a young elephant, Tantor (Wayne Knight). The other gorillas tend to tease Tarzan, but his innate courage and greater intelligence keep impressing them over the years. Even as an adults, Tarzan is still convinced he's a gorilla. He even walks on all fours (until Jane gives him a reason to stand upright), something that no other screen Tarzan has ever done, and he races through the treetops both by the vines prescribed by Burroughs and long-standing movie tradition, and by sliding along tree limbs like Santa Monica skateboarders.
Tarzan was animated by the great Glen Keane, who brings to the character not just grace and elegance of movement, but an entire range of characterization in stance, gesture and motion. The design of Tarzan leaves something to be desired, with a long, chin-dominated face that's somewhere between Jay Leno, Stewart Granger and a Zanti Misfit. Tony Goldwyn does very well by Tarzan's voice, and even gets to thunder out the famous yell, which originated in the MGM movie series.
Jane (voiced by Minnie Driver) is also animated superbly, by Ken Stuart Duncan. She's a lively, athletic young woman, once again British, as in the MGM series. Duncan has managed to make her move like a young British woman of intelligence, good humor and a warm openness. She's not a figure of fun, but is consistently very funny, both in gesture and movement, and from Driver's fine, witty vocal performance. (She also did great and very different vocal work in "Princess Mononoke.")
Disney needs to learn that not every feature cartoon requires comic sidekicks who sound like they just blew in from Manhattan. The comic sidekicks are indeed funny, but every time they turn up, we're jerked out of the reality of the adventures of the central character, and plunged back into funny cartoons. Rosie O'Donnell has a brassy but ingratiating personality that comes through like a lightning bolt, even when she's a gorilla -- but the problem is that Terk is a great deal more Rosie than she is a gorilla. The same is true of Wayne Knight as Tantor; Wayne Knight is a great second-banana comic, but "Tarzan" would have seemed more unified, and possibly greater, if both Tantor and Terk had been more like the animals and less like the comics.
Clayton (voiced boomingly by Brian Blessed) is an example of a direction they could have gone. He is also comic, with big gestures, giant grins and a huge wedge shape -- but he's also rendered in the same style as Tarzan, so that when the time comes, he's as believable a villain as he was a parody of a great white hunter.
Lance Henriksen was a good choice for the voice of Kerchak; he sounds deep, commanding, and very, very serious. Glenn Close might seem to be a surprising choice for a voice in a Tarzan film, but she redubbed all of Andie McDowell's lines in "Greystoke." Here, she sounds warm and maternal without ever seeming fussy.
At its best, not only is "Tarzan" entertaining, but it's very different from most other Disney cartoon features; the central character's crisis is more of the heart than deriving from danger, Tarzan is more serious and less jokey himself than most Disney characters, and he's also more masculine, more powerful, more adult than most. He is, in fact, at once dangerous, amusing and sexy, unheard of for a male Disney cartoon lead. If the company had shown a little more daring in their handling of the comic sidekicks, "Tarzan" could well have been one of their very best animated features. As it is, it's fine entertainment, but the compromises have weakened the final result.
The DVD is typical of the Disney studio: beautifully produced, bedecked with extras aimed more at children than adults (such as a trivia game), though Phil Collins, who did some songs for the movie does appear twice. Once is the rock video he did of his "Strangers Like Me" song from the movie; the other is a kind of behind-the-scenes short about recording another song, "Trashin' the Camp." The disc opens with trailers that, at first, cannot be fast-forwarded through, a sinister development.
As usual with Disney, this DVD release is scheduled to be followed by a much more elaborate version, with drawings, a documentary, interviews and the like. If you loved "Tarzan," wait for that one; if you merely liked it, this is the preferable purchase