Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck
Cast Voices: Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Glenn Close, Lance Henriksen, Rosie O'Donnell, Wayne Knight, Nigel Hawthorne, Brian Blessed, Alex D. Linz.
1999 88 minutes
Rated: (if this were live-action, it would be at least PG for violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 18, 1999.
These past two years have not been kind to Disney's animated features, particularly their last two summer films--the mediocre "Hercules" and the arrantly forgettable "Mulan." With the same old story formula and increasingly dull music, not to mention unextraordinary animation, I was beginning to wonder if Disney had finally run out of steam. At least one thing was certain: they weren't making top-quality films like "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast" anymore. With that said, the writer of this review is going to have to eat his own words as the newest Disney feature, "Tarzan," is a rip-roaring, thoroughly entertaining, and emotional motion picture, one of Disney's better recent excursions. Fascinatingly, it is said that the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, based on the human "ape-man," Tarzan, is one of the most consistently remade stories in history, second to only Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Since I was more or less unfamiliar with Tarzan, aside from the basic details, this new Disney-fied version of "Tarzan" came off as more original than it probably should have, and it was rather easy to get caught up in the joyful goings-on.
The stunning opening, played to the lyrical tune, "Two Worlds," by Phil Collins (who composed five songs specifically for the film), introduces us to a young couple in perilous danger, as they escape with their baby from a burning ship. Stranded in the jungles of Africa, the kindly ape, Kala (voiced by Glenn Close), grieving over the tragic death of her own child, finds the human baby in a cottage atop the trees, which also leaves traces of his own parents, who were killed by a leopard. Convincing her companion and leader, Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), to take the baby, whom she names Tarzan, into their ape community, Tarzan finally grows up into a buff young man who has learned ape-"speak" and is able to swing gracefully from vine to vine. He realizes that he looks different than his surrogate "mother," Kala, but has been able to get past this fact and has made two good friends, the loudmouthed ape, Terk (Rosie O'Donnell, who else?), and the elephant, Tantor (Wayne Knight). As luck would have it, one day Tarzan narrowly saves the good-natured, young British woman, Jane (Minnie Driver), who is on a gorilla expedition with her professor father (Nigel Hawthorne) and the smarmy, rifle-toting Clayton (Brian Blessed), from a pack of wild monkeys. Discovering for the first time that there are beings just like him, Tarzan grows a fondness for Jane, who teaches him English in exhange for Apish, and finds himself suddenly torn between two completely different worlds--the one he grew up in, and the one he is supposed to belong in.
Using a brand-new technique known as "deep canvas," which three-dimensionalizes the backgrounds, the animators of "Tarzan" have really outdone themselves this time. The film is constantly an enjoyable piece of eye candy, with the scenes of Tarzan swinging through the trees almost as exhilarating as riding a rollercoaster. In particular, the sequence in which Tarzan saves Jane from the monkeys is a definite runner-up for the most exciting action set-piece in any movie this year.
While the other recent animated pictures have had approximately the same exact running time as "Tarzan," they all have come off as oddly empty and seemingly much too short. This unfortunate fact most likely was due to the repetitive nature in which they were made, as the characters would break into a ho-hum song every ten minutes, thus taking away from actual character development. Wisely and refreshingly choosing to not be a musical this time around, with the Phil Collins songs simply playing in the background, "Tarzan" feels neither hollow nor too-brief, and Tarzan's plight was far more easy to get into. Continually, the relationship he forms with Jane is one of the sweeter romances seen in any animated film in, dare I say it, history. Their connection, and gradual love for one another, does not come off as a contrivance (as so many of them do in Disney movies), and it, like the the film as a whole, felt more adult-oriented, although children 5 or 6 and up will also fall in love with it.
Too often voice-over work isn't as effective as it should be, but once again, the Disney folks have hit jackpot, particularly in the form of Minnie Driver, who gives one of the most winning performances I've seen in 1999, animated or not. Driver brings a surprising sassiness and life to Jane, and gets the most unforced laughs in the film. Tony Goldwyn is also perfect as Tarzan, with the pitch-perfect deep voice and expressions (although I couldn't help but be reminded of Brendan Fraser throughout, no doubt due to the 1997 live-action "George of the Jungle"). Glenn Close is touching in the voice of Kala, and her sad character, coming-to-terms with her own child's death, even has a scene that almost stole some liquid from my tear ducts. Lance Henriksen, as the gruff Kerchak, who makes it clear to Kala that, "Tarzan will never be my son," also gives fine voice work. Even Rosie O'Donnell, who began to seriously grate on my nerves after her first few scenes, grew on me, and even had one opportunity to flex her dramatic muscles(!)
With "Tarzan," Disney has hinted at a possible, much-needed redemption for the studio. If their animated tentpole for next summer is also a winner, then their talent will be confirmed. Though nowhere near as masterful as Dreamworks' "The Prince of Egypt," "Tarzan" remains everything a quality animated feature should be: intelligent, accessible to both kids and adults, and most important, genuinely fun. If only Disney could improve their incessantly awful live-action attempts; well, we can always hope, can't we?
©1999 by Dustin Putman