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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Disneyear: Tarzan (1999)

Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs story of a man raised by apes, Tarzan was Disney's last bona fide before the end of the Disney Renaissance. Making almost $450 million worldwide and receiving good marks in terms of animation, storytelling, the Phil Collins soundtrack, and even some comments about how it surpasses even most of the live-action attempts on the story, Disney's version was a pretty big hit when it came out. After all, Tarzan is a story that lends itself to be animated since there's so many creative variations on what you can do with it and it is a well known story. Now that I think about it, I wonder how many people were introduced to the story through this movie like how Robin Hood was how many people my age were introduced to the stories? So when I sat down to watch it again, a lot of the content exceeded my expectations. However, there where some stuff in there that was mediocre. Let's swing on over to see what people go ape over in Disney's Tarzan (by the way, sorry for all the stupid puns recently!)

In the 19th century, two English parents escape from a burning ship and wind up in the rainforests of Africa and make a treehouse only to lose their lives to a leopard, leaving their baby son alive. By coincidence, a gorilla named Kala (Glenn Close) loses her baby to the same leopard. The two meet and Kala adopts the infant as her own after escaping the leopard. Her groups leader and mate Kerchak (Lance Henriksen) is resentful of the infant but allows him to stay out of respect for Kala who names the infant Tarzan. We jump forward... ten years maybe?... to the baby's childhood. We see him trying to fit in with the other gorillas with some help from his friends: a cheeky ape named Terk (Rosie O'Donnell) and a paranoid elephant named Tantor (Wayne Knight). Tarzan finds it tough to fit in but tries to improve himself. Years later as an adult, Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) meets the leopard who killed his parents and Kala and Kerchak's original baby and fights a battle to the death with her. After that and gaining some respect from Kerchak, Tarzan finds a strange thing: animals that look like him! One a hunter/guide named Clayton (Brian Blessed), a bumbling professor (Nigel Hawthorne) and his daughter Jane (Minnie Driver). After saving her life, Tarzan and Jane seem to hit it off well. Jane teaches Tarzan about the human world while he teaches her about the natural world. Tarzan finds out she, her father, and Clayton are there to find gorillas. After deciding to go home with Jane, Tarzan finds out that Clayton is the bad guy, wanting to hunt the gorillas for money. Tarzan and his friends of course save his family, but Kerchak loses his life. Before dying, Kerchak tells Tarzan to lead the family and that he always considered him a son. Jane decides then to stay with Tarzan in the jungle.

The first thing that stands out in my mind about Tarzan is the animation on the main character. Before this film, most people associated Tarzan with swinging on vines to move around. He does here too, but watch what he does on tree branches. He surfs on them! That's really creative and showcases Glen Keane's talent as a great animator. Speaking of the main character, Tarzan himself is a good character. He does all the animalistic stuff like snarl and roar and walk on his knuckles, but at moments he can be sentimental. We see his turmoil of choosing between the human world and the ape world and it is compelling.

The clip's further down, but you'll flip when you see it!
Jane is the damsel-in-distress done right. Sure, she has to be saved a lot, but she's an interesting person. She's clumsy, eccentric, polite, and of course has a good heart. It makes sense for her to be saved because she's just out of her environment. She does provide the link between Tarzan's world and civilization, so I think she's a fun character too.

The side characters are alright. Rosie O'Donnell plays one of the apes... I'd call that idealistic casting, but everyone else probably thought that too. While she's annoying, she's not to the point where it kills the movie. Wayne Knight as Tantor was a fun choice. It's kind of a shame that he didn't have to many scenes because he did make me chuckle from time to time. Though to be fair, the film focuses on where it should be: on Tarzan and his turmoil. Part of that is Tarzan's "father" Kerchak, who may be one of the most fleshed out side characters in Disney history. He's reluctant to call the ape-man a son because when Kala brought him back, he feared other humans were there and this was a threat to the family. On top of that, he lost his real son to a leopard. Can you blame him? It's Tarzan's loyalty to him that wins him over. That and the animation by Bruce W. Smith is just awesome! Overall, he's a good character too.

Hello, Newman...
Not a screen cap, but an actual drawing of Kerchak by Bruce Smith. :)
The villain is unfortunately not that great. Clayton's motivation is as boring as the Disney motivations get: he's just greedy and doing it for the money. It's the Pocahontas villain all over again. Yeah, he just sort of slows things down for me. Come to think of it, why wasn't the leopard the villain? This thing has killed a family and a baby gorilla! She would have been cool, like a Shere-Khan type of villain! But I digress...

It would have been cool to see this in The Jungle Book!
The songs are by Phil Collins. A of people like them, I kind of don't. Don't get me wrong. They're not godawful songs, it's just that they don't do much for me. So the characters are singing abou... no wait, Phil's the one singing in the background! Right out of nowhere! I guess he sings about what's going on like this can be played on AM radio, but it's just too vague for me. My main problem with them is like what I said about The Lion King's songs: the film really doesn't need them. Just let the characters do their thing instead of having Phil Collins singing "Here's what's going on! Here's how they... No wait, I feel something similar!". Here's a short video of how I bet some of the animals must have felt when they hear Collins out of nowhere.

The turmoil Tarzan goes through is addressed, and the film does take some time to look at it. I kind of wish more time was spent on it. There's some great scenes on what I'm talking about, like when Tarzan covers himself with mud to look like an ape to fit in and when Tarzan and Jane meet and put their hands against each other, but each of those scenes are only a few seconds long and I think the film could have taken more time out to explore this. It's kind of fighting with the greedy plot device called the villain and Phil Collins for space. But to be fair, this is a Disney film. I can't expect every character to be as complex as Frollo and I get the feeling that Disney is trying to better themselves. And in many respects, they really are.

I suppose I'm falling into the critic's trap of letting what I want get in the way of what it really is. For what it is, Tarzan is a good film. I love the main characters, I love the animation, and I like that there is room for character development. I just wish more time was spent on that. On the whole, Tarzan is still a good movie. Next time you see on DVD, give it a watch. 

1 comment:

scarecrow33 said...

I re-watched this just a week or two ago, and I totally agree with your assessment. I watched it in context of several of the Tarzan films which I have been watching lately--Johnny Weissmuller, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, etc. It not only stands up respectably among those other films, but in many ways surpasses them!

The most impressive moment for me was when Tarzan tried on human clothes for the first time. The expression on his face is haunting. He looks so uncomfortable, yet he is willing to give his humanity a try.

One thing the movie never explained--Clayton has to be a relative or cousin of Tarzan, since they have the same last name. The character never claimed any such kinship.

I could have done without Rosie O'Donnell--her voice does not belong in a Tarzan movie--but her character is not emphasized much, so it doesn't hurt the overall film.

Tarzan's entire physiognomy is well-animated. His body movements really mimic those of the apes.

Definitely worth watching again and again!