Disney’s “Tarzan” swings, even if it doesn’t always soar. This first animated treatment of one of the screen’s great perennial characters is always engaging, and certainly will be so for legions of kids, although it doesn’t measure up to Disney’s top-level animated features on several counts. But all the elements are in place for this rambunctious, visually arresting, occasionally poignant musical adventure to emerge as one of the studio’s long-distance B.O. champs, as its appeal will cut across all youthful demographics internationally and its repeat viewing potential is high.
Given the prominence of animals and improbable physical feats in the African tales created by Edgar Rice Burroughs during the first half of the century, Tarzan always seemed like a natural for the animated screen, even to the author himself, who in the 1930s cautioned only that “the cartoon must be good. It must approximate Disney excellence.”
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As it happened, all 47 previous Tarzan features have been live-action, with none better than the second Johnny Weissmuller-Maureen O’Sullivan teaming, the exciting and erotic 1934 “Tarzan and His Mate.”
New “Tarzan” takes particularly good advantage of animation’s unlimited possibilities for human-animal interaction in its initial half-hour, before the lead character grows up. Stranded in Africa after a dramatic shipwreck and deprived of his parents by a hungry leopard, the infant Tarzan is rescued by a female gorilla, Kala, who has herself lost a child.
Although her mate, Kerchak, the hulking leader of the gorilla community, adamantly refuses to accept the pale, hairless little creature as his “son,” insisting that “he’s not our kind,” mother love prevails and Kala raises the blue-eyed boy as her own.
Little Tarzan is often shunned and receives plenty of ribbing from the ape kids for his relative lack of strength and agility. But the “freaky” one meets the challenge and soon learns the ropes, and vines, as well as any of them. the screenplay is by Tab Murphy (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” co-story on “Gorillas in the Mist”) and the husband-wife team of Bob Tzudiker and Noni White (“Hunchback”). It makes most of its obvious p.c. points right away (“Why am I so different?,” the lad asks his “mom”), as it lays the groundwork for the more important psychological issues that will surface later, when Tarzan has to figure out whether he’s more at home among men or beasts.
The tyke Tarzan neatly transforms into the ripply adult version in the middle of one of Phil Collins’ typically throbbing and propulsive songs. Apart from his flowing brown locks and long slender nose, this Tarzan is all chin, shoulders and thighs. He is a brilliant physical specimen exhibited in a show-off sequence (on the part of the animators as well as the character) in which Tarzan slips and slides through the jungle on twisted tree limbs and vines like a human roller coaster. Kids will get off on this, of course, but once is enough, and the encores of the “thrill ride” approach to action sequences is part of the film’s tendency toward overkill.
The unspoiled verdant playground is suddenly punctured by the gunshots of a party of late-Victorian Brits including the nutty Professor Porter, his spirited daughter Jane, and muscular white hunter Clayton. The first two seem keen to see the elusive gorillas in their natural habitat, while the wily Clayton’s intentions are more threatening and ambiguous.
Some nice comic moments ensue from the collision of cultures. On glimpsing the colonial campsite, the otherwise weak comic-relief character of Tantor, a cowardly elephant, shrieks, “The horror!”; marauding monkeys make like a touring company of “Stomp” as they playfully destroy the camp, and the professor, seeing Tarzan for the first time, remarks, “He could be the missing link.”
The tone shortly becomes more serious, however, as the visitors begin teaching the curious Tarzan about civilization via projected engravings and other means, and the well-behaved wild man begins sensing that Jane may be of interest to him in a way that no monkey ever has been.
In a departure from Burroughs, Tarzan rejects the idea of accompanying Jane to England, and instead has his very notion of identity tested when Clayton tricks him into betraying the community that raised him on the chance of keeping Jane in Africa. Some major action leads to a mixed-bag climax involving satisfying revenge, inevitable tragedy and an overly pat happy ending that leaves the door open to as many video sequels as Disney cares to make.
Film is intelligently structured and balanced dramatically, and thematic concerns regarding the unavoidable conflict between human society and nature have been shrewdly focused. On the other hand, pic suffers from the lack of a genuine baddy; despite his ever-present gun and constantly menacing attitude, Clayton is not there to shoot gorillas, and his game plan is simply too hard to read.
When difficult choices and challenges present themselves, they are too quickly and easily resolved to offer genuine emotional satisfaction, so the dollops of poignancy remain just that, moments that exist without achieving the resonance of more deeply developed situations in the enduring Disney animated classics. Intrinsic to this problem is the utterly contemporary fear of boring even a single member of the audience, the chief symptom of which is to keep something, anything, happening all the time, preferably in full frame and at maximum volume.
Disney productions from earlier decades were marked by strong contrasts between busy moments — musical and otherwise — and interludes of a sometimes haunting quiet and calm, contrasts that greatly heightened the power and drama of the key scenes. As directed by Kevin Lima (“The Goofy Movie”) and Chris Buck, this “Tarzan” would have benefited from a more varied audiovisual tenor, and it has a setting uniquely able to provide it — but this approach must be deemed hopelessly antiquated in an era that values relentless bombardment.
Collins’ tunes, while apt individually to the moments they illustrate, help further this feeling, as they feature the same repetitive rhythms and drum-driven motifs.
Use of songs as a background to the story, rather than as numbers sung and mouthed by the characters, works well, as does the technique via which Tarzan speaks in normal English to his gorilla family and other animals, but can still be tutored in the language by Jane. Tarzan’s romance with the latter seems more stunted than it needs to be even in a G-rated pic primarily intended for kids.
Voicings are first-class all around, with Tony Goldwyn giving Tarzan equally convincing measures of determination and introspection, Minnie Driver lending Jane a nicely flustered gutsiness, Glenn Close and Lance Henriksen bestowing Tarzan’s “parents” with proper gravity, and Brian Blessed and Nigel Hawthorne, as the brawny Clayton and the brainy professor, neatly expressing the twin poles of the colonial spirit. Comic work by Wayne Knight as the elephant and Rosie O’Donnell as an aggressive monkey friend of Tarzan’s, is more overbearing than amusing.
Animation work is richly detailed and colorfully conceived, but the computer animation and graphics are often intermingled and combined in ways that are more distracting in their differences than helpful in their vividness.