Tarzan (1999)


a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Tarzan… him only 88 minutes long! Yet, while Tarzan go by fast, movie show Disney animators fumbling back to relevance! Maybe Disney rediscover how make original, engaging movie! Good Disney!

Okay, enough primitive ape-man talk.

Since the arrival of the colorful Aladdin, Disney movies have become increasingly predictable, by-the-numbers affairs. They’ve seemed like little more than commercials for tie-in merchandising. They’ve seemed as disposable as fast food, sacrificing good storytelling for the kind of frantic entertainment that will hold the attention of kids suffering from ADD. The soundtracks have become forgettable, overburdened with lousy Broadway-wanna-be songwriting. The villains have become rather boring, using over-the-top voices and flashing eyes to make up for their lack of character.

And there’s always… ALWAYS… an obnoxious wisecracking celebrity sidekick peppering the dialogue with pop culture references. Yes, Robin Williams in Aladdin is funny; but the story of Aladdin is not supposed to be about the genie. A sidekick’s purpose is NOT to be the center of attention. (Exception: Eddie Murphy didn’t demand center stage in Mulan, and thus the movie was more balanced.) The glory days of such simple quality classics as 101 Dalmatians, where all of the characters were equally strong and the STORY was the reason to pay attention… well, those days are over.

The last time Disney got it right was Beauty and the Beast, but it’s been downhill from there.

The first half of Tarzan is Disney’s best stuff since Beauty and the Beast. It strains against these recent formulas and returns to classical storytelling. Rosie O’Donnell comes close to upsetting the balance with her bellowing ape character. (You can lock her in a box with Jar Jar Binks and let them fight it out for Character Who Sticks Out Like the Biggest Sore Thumb.) And after Tarzan and Jane get to know each other, the story suddenly realizes that there’s no villain bad enough to make for a stirring finale; slowly the film’s brilliance declines into a typical showdown with a forgettable villain. Still, for that first hour, Tarzan introduces memorable characters and an original blend of music and action that has the audience gasping its way from scene to scene and vine to vine.

Another reason Tarzan stands out: There’s very little Politically Correct Sermonizing. The story sticks to the novel from which it was drawn, for the most part, and actually delving deeper than other Tarzan films, concentrating on Tarzan’s search for identity and a place to belong.

But perhaps the best thing of all about Tarzan is that this is a story where the romance makes sense. The characters of Tarzan and Jane are so well-drawn and so well-written that I wished they had been given more scenes together. I would watch a sequel if their characters remained as funny and engaging. They’re interesting, and their attraction to each other is convincing, developing almost effortlessly from their attempts to communicate and get to know each other. Minnie Driver as Jane takes the blue ribbon for All-Time Most Memorable Disney Heroine (so far) for me. Oh, they still haven’t figured out that a heroine can be likeable without drooling over a hero, but this is, after all. Tarzan and Jane – an Established Romance –so deviation from the course would have been inappropriate. Driver brings such spunk to Jane that she nearly steals the show. Tarzan himself is a great accomplishment for Disney animation. He’s charming, he incredibly graceful, and his flights through the trees (this Tarzan does NOT swing… he surfs) are as exhilarating as The Phantom Menace‘s pod race.

Tarzan’s struggle to find his place in the world is a powerful story. Everyone knows something of what it is like to feel like an outsider, like the world isn’t quite where they were intended to be. Perhaps this story doesn’t need an archvillain. Indeed, its attempts to make one out of the brutish English hunter feels like a cop-out, a frantic retreat to formula. (There’s nothing original about him. He’s got the face of Captain Hook, the stature of Beauty and the Beast‘s muscular thug, and the sneer of the villain from The Rescuers Down Under.) The jungle is fraught with peril, so the story hardly needs a one-on-one showdown in the end. Ah, but it’s too late. They’ve made the movie. Maybe they’ll learn from Pixar’s Toy Story that heroes can be good enough to carry a movie, and audiences don’t demand a show-stealing villain.

While the action sometimes mimics The Lion King (the baboons are a lot like the hyenas, the father is a lot like Mufasa, and there’s yet ANOTHER heroic charge into the middle of a stampede), there’s enough brilliant design in the treetops of Tarzan‘s world that I felt Disney was taking me somewhere I had never been before. The Phil Collins soundtrack would have been better as just an instrumental. Collins’ voice is such a staple of Top 40 and Muzak that it seemed incongruous with the surroundings. The music, however, supplies a compelling primitive jungle sound to the proceedings. I found the fact that the characters only break out into song ONCE quite a refreshing change.

In spite of its unfortunately familiar second act, Tarzan never wears out his welcome… the movie’s over in 88 minutes. In that time, I found myself plunged into a fascinating and beautiful environment. I’m not sure how well such a grand spectacle will translate to video, but I hope audiences respond enthusiastically and reward Disney for moving back towards storytelling and away from the Aladdin syndrome.

Directors – Kevin Lima and Chris Buck
Writers – Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, based on the story ”Tarzan of the Apes,” by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Art director – Daniel St. Pierre
Editor – Gregory Perler
Music – Mark Mancina, with songs by Phil Collins
Tarzan character animator – Glen Keane
Producer – Bonnie Arnold
Walt Disney Pictures. 88 minutes. Rated G.
STARRING: Tony Goldwyn (Tarzan), Minnie Driver (Jane), Glenn Close (Kala), Alex D. Linz (Young Tarzan/Baby Tarzan), Rosie O’Donnell (Terk), Brian Blessed (Clayton), Sir Nigel Hawthorne (Porter), Lance Henriksen (Kerchak), Wayne Knight (Tantor) and Taylor Dempsey (Young Tantor).

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One Response to “Tarzan (1999)”

  1. Joel Says:

    It’s such a great tool to keep track of stuff you’ve been meaning to check out!
    I think it would be great to organize an exchange of some kind with an online community…kind of a “secret santa” with people anonymously buying stuff for each other from Amazon.

    -(don’t believe we’ve internet-met yet, but i recently joined the arts and faith board and am actually a co-conspirator w/you in the next IMAGE — i wrote on pop music.)

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