directed by Chris Buck and Kevin Lima
(Walt Disney, 1999)
Much has changed since Elmo Lincoln first brought Edgar Rice Burroughs' character Tarzan to moviehouses in 1918. But have the changes been improvements, or are they pretty much the cinematic equivalent of aluminum siding?
Walt Disney studios has raised that question once again with its animated version of Tarzan. In it, Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn) is once again raised by a family of gorillas after his human family is shipwrecked off the coast of Africa, he once again meets Jane (Minnie Driver) and he once again becomes king of the jungle by chasing out those nasty white hunters who make the NRA look like a Sierra Club hiking group.
But this latest Tarzan has some things going for him that poor old Elmo couldn't even have imagined. He has muscles that look like they just stepped out of an Abdominizer ad and a waistline Calista Flockhart would simply die for. More importantly, he has sound. This new Tarzan not only speaks, but he has Phil Collins to write songs for him.
Still, this could be a mixed blessing, for while "Trashin' the Camp," a percussive piece performed by Tarzan's animal friends when they discover the white people's camp, is a lot of fun, it's vaguely reminiscent of both "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid and "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast. Familiar too is "You'll Be in My Heart," a throwback to the love ballads of Aladdin and The Lion King.
The themes seem rehashed as well, especially the father-son conflict between Tarzan and his adoptive dad, Kerchak (Lance Henriksen). Then there's evil white hunter Clayton (Brian Blessed), who's a dead ringer for Captain Hook. He even has a bit of Hook's seamy charm, though he lacks Hook's wit and a capable sidekick the caliber of Mr. Smee.
All this points to what's wrong with Disney's Tarzan, as well as the disappointing Hunchback of Notre Dame which preceded it: They've become too much formula, too little fun. Unquestionably, Tarzan is an animated achievement that buries films that amazed viewers only a few years ago. Some of its jungle images are so real they could easily be mistaken for photographs; the camera has a kind of Miami Vice mobility unheard-of in even the cutting-edge cartoons of the past; and the tree surfing Tarzan takes to in times of trouble is so fast, smooth and three-dimensional that it easily produces vertigo, if not enjoyment. But therein lies the difficulty: the improvements are all at surface level. Look beyond the sheen and you'll see a dark-hearted rehash of Disney films that's strong on tried-and-true themes, but weak on variations.
Colorful sidekicks like Tantor the elephant (Wayne Knight and Taylor Dempsey) and teen-age gorilla Terk (Rosie O'Donnell) can take a film only so far. At some point it has to go the distance on its own. Tarzan tries, but doesn't quite get there.