Tarzan (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One thing viewers should never reasonably expect from an animated movie is faithfulness to the source material. Adult themes and unhappy endings rarely make it into a Disney movie. That's why Ariel survives in The Little Mermaid, the bulk of Aladdin only vaguely resembles "A Thousand and One Nights," The Hunchback of Notre Dame completely eviscerated Victor Hugo's attacks on the Catholic Church, and Hercules conveniently ignored the sexual appetites of the gods of Olympus. That's not to say that all of these changes are bad; on the contrary, most of Disney's recent animated offerings have been highly entertaining. But those expecting Tarzan to be a faithful recreation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic would do best to alter their expectations. Although the script claims to be based on Tarzan of the Apes by Rice Burroughs, a better designation might be "inspired by the characters and situations devised by" the author.

Tarzan is actually a curious motion picture in that it's Disney's most obviously kid-targeted animated movie since the Magic Kingdom returned to the top a decade ago. Adults can (and will) still enjoy the film, but not in the same way that they appreciated more sophisticated fare like Beauty and the Beast and last year's dazzling Mulan. Aside from the visuals, which are spectacular, there's not that much here to arrest and older viewer's attention. The story has two principal components. The first, Tarzan's struggle with his own identity, is aimed squarely at the prepubescent crowd - it lacks psychological depth. The second, the Tarzan/Jane romance, is perfunctory and sanitized. It's a pleasant, cute sort of love story, but is less compelling than Disney's other savage-meets-civilization romance - that of John Smith and Pocahontas in Pocahontas.

The movie opens on a high note, as Tarzan's mother and father, along with their baby boy, escape a burning shipwreck. They make it to shore, erect a treehouse, and start a life in Africa. Shortly thereafter, however, the two adults fall victim to a wild animal and the baby is adopted by a female gorilla. As he grows, Tarzan becomes an accepted member of the family, but he wonders why he looks different from everyone else. His questions - at least some of them - are answered with the arrival of Jane Porter, her father, and their guide, Clayton, to the jungle. Tarzan is surprised to find others like him, and, after he saves Jane from a band of angry baboons, he finds himself inexplicably drawn to her, and she to him.

From a purely visual standpoint, this may be the most impressive of all of Disney's traditionally animated features. The backdrops are lush, the characters are well realized, and the action sequences are dizzying, with frequent changes of perspectives and camera angles. No conventional animated film has been this ambitious before. In a summer when The Phantom Menace will rule at the box office by wowing children of all ages with its state-of-the-art special effects, Disney doesn't have to take a back seat. Tarzan is as visually pleasing as the new Star Wars movie.

Once again, Disney has made a series of wise decisions concerning vocal characterizations. Tarzan is voiced by Tony Goldwyn, who gives the hero a sort of ordinary voice (his features are also very obvious in the character's face). Minnie Driver's Jane is considerably more independent than the Rice Burroughs version, but she is allowed to keep her British accent. As is true of Goldwyn with Tarzan, there's more than a token resemblance between the actress and her animated representation. Nigel Hawthorne is Jane's father, Brian Blessed is the nefarious Clayton, Glenn Close is Tarzan's adopted mother, and Lance Henriksen is Kerchak, the fearsome leader of the gorillas. The only instance of serious miscasting is Rosie O'Donnell as Terk, Tarzan's best friend. The comedienne, who doesn't have a pleasant voice, couldn't be more out of place trying to follow in the shoes of Gilbert Gottfried (Aladdin), Nathan Lane (The Lion King), and Eddie Murphy (Mulan). Children probably won't be bothered, but more than a few adults will find themselves cringing.

One potential problem with Tarzan is the lack of a strong, central villain. Although Clayton eventually fulfills the bad guy role, he really doesn't assume the position until just before the anticlimactic final battle. Even then, he's not very frightening. Even at his most menacing, he's a far cry from the likes of Beauty and the Beast's Gaston (the previous villain he most closely resembles). In terms of intimidating viewers (or, more appropriately, failing to do so), he's on about the same level as the Governor from Pocahontas - in other words, completely forgettable.

Since this is a Disney movie, the animals all speak. Mercifully, however, they do not break into song (with one minor exception). In fact, for the first time in recent memory, the Magic Kingdom has produced a non-musical animated film, and, for the most part, Tarzan is stronger for it. Of course, there's not a complete lack of singing - Phil Collins contributes four or five tunes, but, rather than being integrated into the plot, they're presented as background music. For the most part, they're effective, although one song with a rock/pop beat seems out-of-place.

Through the years, Tarzan has proven to be an extraordinarily popular character with movie audiences. The best known Ape Man was Johnny Weissmuller, but he's only one of dozens of men in about 70 features to don the loin cloth and swing from vine to vine. And, for each Tarzan, there has been a Jane, the most infamous of which was Bo Derek, who used the opportunity of being alone in the jungle during 1981's Tarzan, the Ape Man to disrobe. Even Disney has gotten into the act once before -- George of the Jungle was nothing more than an affectionate Tarzan spoof. This new animated effort is sure to be a huge hit with children, and, while adults will find much to enjoy about the film, few will see this as the definitive screen version of the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic, and even fewer will herald this as one of Disney's greatest achievements.

Tarzan (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1