1999, G, 88 min. Directed by Kevin Lima, Chris Buck. Starring Alex D. Linz, Nigel Hawthorne, Brian Blessed, Wayne Knight, Rosie O'Donnell, Lance Henriksen, Glenn Close, Minnie Driver, Tony Goldwyn.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 18, 1999
Edgar Rice Burroughs' Ape Man has inspired nearly 50 movies over the years, testament enough to the enduring attachment we have to the story's intrinsic conflict between civilization and nature, man and beast. However, this new Disney offering represents the first time that Tarzan has been animated (assuming we don't count Tarzan knockoffs like Jungle Book and George of the Jungle).
In retrospect, animation seems an all-too-obvious solution to the unreal merger of human and animal kingdoms, allowing humans to swing like apes on the vines and elephants to cavort with humans. Of course this is Disney, and a G-rated kids' picture at that, so don't go in expecting pure fidelity to Burroughs' storylines; still, the nature/civilization conflict survives in this transposition. In true Disney fashion, though, the story is folded into the ongoing drama between parents and child: the son's need to prove his worthy successorship to the dominant father, and the child's harsh and untimely separation from the mother. All this is established in the film's rousing opening minutes in which a shipwrecked human baby whose parents have been devoured by a hungry leopard is adopted by Kala, the grieving gorilla mother whose own baby was eaten by the leopard. Her mate Kerchak, the leader of the gorilla pack, insists that the creature is “not our kind,” but Kala's mother-love prevails.
Growing up, Tarzan wonders why he appears so different, but it's not until he's grown that three human beings -- a great, white hunter; a dotty professor; and his spunky daughter -- invade Tarzan's jungle habitat and provide some clues as to the origin of his species. And it is here that Tarzan's identity and allegiances become forever complicated. Tarzan is also Disney's best-looking animation feature in years. Its new and much-promoted “deep canvas” technique allows backgrounds to have a three-dimensional appearance, which creates vine-swinging sequences that play like amusement park rides.
The vibrancy of the images is reinforced by the smartness of the vocal characterizations. Goldwyn's adult Tarzan conveys a profound but angst-free curiosity, Driver's Jane is a beautifully realized blend of pert and saucy; Close's Kala expresses the boundlessness of a mother's love without ever becoming cloying. As Tarzan's best friend Terk, O'Donnell comes across as a pipsqueak Eddie Haskell, a nicely modulated version of the daytime hostess' brash but weasely demeanor.
Most surprising are the songs by Phil Collins. Unlike the usual Disney sing-alongs, the rock drummer's music is used primarily as an effective bridge between sequences. Only once does the movie stop for one of those cute show-tune set-pieces, and it seems out of place amid the otherwise propulsive jungle drumbeats. Although the villainous parts of this Tarzan are a bit hazy and the animal attraction between Tarzan and Jane a bit chaste, the film, nevertheless, works both for children and the adults who are destined to watch it with them many times over. Score one more hit for the “wild, flying man in a loincloth.”