Tarzan (1999)
First screened and reviewed in July 1999 / Most recently screened in June 2020
Directors: Kevin Lima and Chris Buck. Animated. Voice Cast: Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Nigel Hawthorne, Glenn Close, Lance Henriksen, Rosie O'Donnell, Brian Blessed, Wayne Knight, Alex D. Linz. Screenplay: Tab Murphy and Bob Tzudiker & Noni White (based on the story "Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs).

Twitter Capsule: An impressively fleet, energetic spectacle, well-performed by savvily cast actors. But guess how many African folks we meet!

VOR:   I'd call this a rebound from recent Disney efforts like Pocahontas and Hercules, but I didn't see those. Tarzan: At Least You Want to See It! Techniques visibly refining.

Photo © 1999 Walt Disney Pictures
Hardly a detail is awry in Disney's new animated version of Tarzan, a picture as lean, quick, and capable as its immortal hero. Tarzan, most famously incarnated by Johnny Weismuller in the 1930s and 1940s, has been one of Hollywood's most durable archetypes, sturdy and popular even when the films have been cheap and disposable, like last year's Tarzan and the Lost City. Disney, like any other studio, knows the wisdom of banking—and I do mean banking—on proven formulas, and their rendezvous with the Ape Man was probably inevitable. Still, overfamiliarity presents its own problems. Tarzan's only real shortcoming is that neither the character nor the film ever provides truly persuasive reasons for their return to the screen. Sitting in the audience is like coasting through an above-average date. You smile, but you still suspect that a fresher, more exciting evening might have been had with someone else.

Only three writers receive on-screen credit for Tarzan, though the script often plays like a compendium of famous moments from Bambi, Babe, and other classics of kid-fare cinema. The movie starts as Tarzan's family is shipwrecked off the coast of Africa. His parents, clearly the lost ancestors of Bob Vila and Martha Stewart, arrive in the jungle with only their baby and their ragged clothing but have soon constructed a canopied, multi-storied treehouse. We're talking glass windows, tablecloths, and a giant pulley of rope and iron. All that handicrafting surely would have killed them if a prowling, green-eyed leopard hadn't done so first. Tarzan himself is rescued from that encounter by Kala, a gorilla who has recently lost her own infant cub to the same murderous feline. Kala takes the baby boy back to the herd, who benignly furrow their heavy brows at his pink, bare skin. Only Kerchak, Kala's alpha-male mate, warns that more human beings will surely arrive in Tarzan's wake, a certain recipe for the gorillas' collective ruin. Still, he grudgingly allows the boy to live and grow up within the tribe.

Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories, unmistakable products of the time and the culture in which they were written, offered Tarzan as the emblem of white, male superiority. Throw him into the wild, lacking either companions or education, and marvel how his natural gifts of strength, honor, and Jane-friendly swarthiness still emerge intact! If you can believe it, this new Tarzan reveals even more stunning genetic coding. Not only is he kind, chiseled, and resourceful, but also biologically dirt-resistant. Moreover, he is the seeming inventor of the great art of windsurfing—not bad for a land-locked chap. Soon enough, he happens upon Jane, the spunky daughter and colleague of a kindly explorer/researcher. Instantly smitten, the sensitive, thoughtful Tarzan outdoes himself putting a new twist on conventional, Men Are From Mars wisdom. Turns out, ladies, that men who actually are raised by gorillas are the only ones who act as if they weren't.

Little of what ensues is a blinding surprise, with Tarzan and Jane fending off the advances of the musket-slinging hunter who guided her father's expedition. Tony Goldwyn, who impressed earlier this year as the director of A Walk on the Moon, lends Tarzan a strong but appealingly gentle voice. Minnie Driver, the true champ of the movie's voice cast, makes Jane tough, witty, and supremely likable, though the actress greatly benefits from a Disney script that finally gives its heroine a personality, even a sense of humor. (Speaking of, my favorite joke in the film was the tongue-in-cheek casting of Glenn Close as Kala, the mother gorilla. The actress earlier performed voice-over work for 1984's live-action Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, kindly agreeing to re-dub all of Andie MacDowell's lines.) Tarzan's well-chosen cast keep the film's emotions honest, while the skillful team of animators devise some exhilarating point-of-view animation for Tarzan's warp-speed carooms across the vines and other vegetation.

Again, few moments in the film comprise actual missteps, though Tarzan's growth to adulthood is handled in a montage so precisely similar to Simba's maturation in The Lion King, and Phil Collins' songs so blandly derivative of Elton John's own anodyne songs from that film, you can almost hear the sound of Disney's "creative time" re-watching and reproducing their own products. Another similarity between Tarzan and The Lion King, however, severely constrains the newer film's ability to entertain, even casually. Over five years, Disney has given us two films about Africa in which not a single African character appears, much less African stories or genuine African music. A year ago, this same studio boldly plumbed Chinese folklore to produce Mulan, not only its most unexpected film in decades but also its most unpredictable smash. Collins—who, like Sir Elton before him, offers us computerized samba drums as the height of multiculturalism—croons in his opening number about Africa as a land "untouched by man." If they are not going to show us African characters, the least Disney could do is avoid pretending that African people do not exist.

Certainly not every film can represent every cultural heritage, and for all I know, Kevin Lima and Chris Buck are at this very moment frying their Pentiums bringing Ananse the Spider to elaborate life. We can all hope so, even if Ananse would inevitably require a wise-cracking earthworm for a sidekick and, I don't know, Steve Winwood on the soundtrack. Meanwhile, Tarzan is as full and well-seasoned a crop as one could expect from a field that has already been cultivated too many times. The characters and colors in this film are dazzlers, true, but I still missed those other characters and colors that were so conspicuously absent. Hopefully, the missing ingredients will appear, rowdy and robust, in Disney blockbusters to come. Grade: B

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Original Song: "You'll Be in My Heart"

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Original Song: "You'll Be in My Heart"

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