Delightful Disney 'Tarzan' surfs the jungle through groundbreaking animation technique
Every time someone makes a "Tarzan" movie, they take wild liberties with Edgar Rice Burroughs' text.
Burroughs' Tarzan didn't live in a treehouse with an elephant-operated elevator, but Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan did in one his campy 1930s classics (if that's the word). Burroughs didn't imagine any Tarzan erotic adventures, either, but John Derek cast his wife Bo as a nude, sexpot Jane in 1981.
Disney's new and visually magnificent animated "Tarzan" takes different kinds of liberties -- the kind necessary to create a kid-friendly movie (minimal violence; cute, wise-cracking sidekicks; et al). But with the freedom allowed by the animation medium, in this movie Tarzan himself may be the most authentic vision of the character to date. This is a Tarzan unlimited by what human actors are capable of physically, and in terms of authenticity it makes all the difference in the world.
As envisioned by Burroughs and brought to life by lead animator Glen Keane and directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck he moves like an animal, low to the ground, resting on his under-turned knuckles. He swings effortlessly from branch to branch like a gibbon, instead of like a stunt man looking for his next strategically-placed vine. He also surfs the jungle tree trunks like a skateboarder, making copious use of the movie's coolest effect -- a new computer animation technique called Deep Canvas that gives the an astonishing, three-dimensional feel to the lush, living jungle, which Tarzan kowabungas though at roller-coaster speeds.
But enough about technique. Of course "Tarzan" looks incredible. It's just Disney once again rising to the occasion and then some. Advancing the film animation art form by leaps and bounds is old hat to these guys.
Just as important is that the 'toon "Tarzan" is also a whole lot of fun and joyously 'toony, even with its highfalutin artistic achievements.
Disney's Tarzan is an indelible, honest hero voiced by Tony Goldwyn (best known as the bad yuppie in "Ghost") with noble grunts and cat-like curiosity to go with his requisite Sunday school lesson identity hang-ups that stem from being raised by gorillas.
Said curiosity is piqued with the arrival in his jungle of the first humans he's ever seen -- a Victorian safari, consisting of a diminutive, clumsy professor-type anthropologist (Nigel Hawthorne) and his prim but adventurous daughter, Jane (Minnie Driver).
I don't think I need to go into too much detail here since Hollywood has had darn near 70 variations on this yarn in the last 90 years. Suffice to say, the parts of the story you don't already know by heart concern the safari guide, Clayton (Brian Blessed), a mustache-twirling Great White Hunter with designs on Tarzan's relatives for a zoo exhibit.
No one has ever accused Disney of originality at the screenplay level.
However, when it comes to storytelling technique, "Tarzan" is more ambitious and inventive than anything the mouse house has cranked out since "The Lion King."
Complementing the standard "me Tarzan, you Jane" stuff is an intelligently symbolic scene of Tarzan removing of Jane's crisp white gloves (after rescuing her from a cougar, natch). The movie illustrates a trading cultures/budding romance sequence with a crafty zoetrope and slide show montage (ala "Butch Cassidy") of Tarzan's exposure to Western technology (telescope, bicycle, books) and customs. And the voices of Goldwyn and especially Driver instill their cartoon incarnations with great vivacity. Although one has to wonder at times how bright these folks are since it takes them most of the picture before they catch on to the completely transparent villain.
The story is, of course, predictable. The stock characters are, of course, unavoidable, including comic relief sidekick critters like the tomboy gorilla voiced obnoxiously by Rosie O'Donnell. This is the way Disney does things, and we must remember no matter how much fun the movie is for us grown-ups, its really aimed at kids who couldn't care less about such trifles.
Except for a "Stomp"-style ditty called "Trashing the Camp" (gorillas exploiting the fact that the Europeans took it all with them), the music is not sung by the characters this time around. Phil Collins provides the songs, which at first seem intrusive and overly sophisticated for the movie's untamed grain, and "Tarzan" is, at times, too reliant on them to illustrate emotions. But Collins' tunes infuse the picture with a certain energy that is slowly contagious. And at least it's not Randy Newman.
My only real complaint about "Tarzan" is that the last reel feels quite rushed, with Tarzan tempting tragedy by unknowingly leading Clayton to the gorillas, a subsequent action scene, and Jane packing up, leaving and, of course, returning -- all in about 8 minutes.
Even five minutes added to the run time could have slowed this breakneck resolution.
But "Tarzan" is definitely a keeper and one of the more unique and original Disney animation spectacles. The finally seamless marriage of computer and hand animation that stems from the Deep Canvas technique will be its legacy, but what audiences will remember is that they had fun.