After their success with the spoofy George of the Jungle, it seems odd that Disney would focus on the legend of Tarzan for their latest animated feature. Still, the Edgar Rice Burroughs story is a classic, with plenty of good adventure possibilities. At least Disney avoided the temptation of having Brendan Fraser voice the title role. The end result is a likable, spectacularly animated film that is unfortunately weakened by the ol’ Disney formula.
The opening five minutes of this film are as intensely tragic as anything Disney has released so far. Barely escaping a fiery shipwreck, Tarzan’s parents find themselves stranded in the wilds of Africa. They briefly find peace, building shelter for themselves and their infant son. But before you can breathe a sigh of relief, their peace is forever shattered and young Tarzan is orphaned by the killing claws of Sabor the leopard. But the tragedy doesn’t stop there… Meanwhile in the jungle, a family of apes, Kala (Glenn Close) and Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), are raising a young son of their own…only to lose him to Sabor as well.
Needless to say, Kala discovers the infant Tarzan, and brings him home to be raised among the apes. Kerchak frowns upon this, but tolerates the human’s presence with a disapproving eye. As Tarzan grows (voiced by Alex D. Linz), he constantly struggles to gain Kerchak’s approval. Even though he is different from all his family and friends, Tarzan strives to be the best ape he can be.
Flash forward several years. The adult Tarzan (now voiced by Tony Goldwyn), still seeks Kerchak’s favor, and has proven to be more resourceful than any of the apes had imagined. But, it is not until Tarzan encounters his first humans that he discovers why he has always felt out of place. Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne), his daughter Jane (Minnie Driver), and their gun-happy assistant, Clayton (Brian Blessed), have traveled to Africa to study the apes. Instead, they discover Tarzan, and he gets his first taste of human society.
And it is here that the film’s major weakness shows its head. Tarzan’s quest for self-identity, and his struggle for Kerchak’s approval are both involving and well done. But, once the humans arrive, the film bogs itself down in the mechanizations of the weakly evil Clayton and his uninteresting schemes. Why Disney had to introduce such a pathetic villain at this late in the game is beyond me. It smells like strict adherence to the Disney formula, which necessitates an evil villain, even in the most character based story. Whatever the reason, it is a bad move.
As usual, Disney has chosen to team the hero up with “amusing” sidekicks. This time, Tarzan’s given a gorilla best buddy, Terk (Rosie O’Donnell), and a neurotic elephant, Tantor (Wayne Knight). However, at least their antics, aside from a Stomp-like musical interlude, are rarely distracting.
The animation done on the film is extremely first rate. Disney consistently pushes the boundaries of animation quality (at least with their theatrical releases). The jungle background are lush and alive, with an almost 3-D sense of tangibility. The characters are well drawn, particularly with respect their lifelike movement.
Although Tarzan performs his famous yodel, this time he doesn’t swing through the trees as much as he slides on the branches. It makes for an interesting visual effect, but it sure must be rough on the feet!
The transition into the world of talking apes is well done, though a bit disorienting at first. The apes are only intelligible when there are no (non-Tarzan) humans around. Otherwise, they make traditional ape noises (as does Tarzan when he’s first discovered). This way the film is able to bridge the gap between Tarzan’s two worlds without sacrificing too much credibility.
The songs in Tarzan, aside from one short lullaby verse, and the musical number mentioned above, are layered over the action (ala Toy Story), rather than sung by the characters. Phil Collins provides the music, and most of the songs are enjoyable, if all a bit similar.
Tarzan is a fun film to watch, even if it does take a turn for the worse during the last act. It is worth watching for the high quality animation alone. However, it is a mystery why Disney doesn’t stretch its creative legs once and a while, and stretch the boundaries of it’s tiresome formula.