Since the release and enormous success of The Lion King in 1994, the Disney Company has aggressively and over-confidently been bidding for world domination. For the most part, they have succeeded. No other movie studio comes close when it comes to animated success (though last year’s The Rugrats’ Movie and The Prince of Egypt both broke one hundred million dollars at the box office, the first non-Disney animated movies to do so, hopefully making Disney execs nervous and twitchy). But subsequent Disney features have been blandly formulaic: main character + wisecracking friends + love interest + villain =$ (okay, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an exception, but I guarantee you that it was accidentally skewed too heavily to an adult audience for Disney’s taste). The marketing behemoth had taken over. It appeared that stuffed animals and keychains were given higher priority than a script. The movies became ninety-minute advertisements and sort of aloof. Disney’s box office deservedly suffered.
Tarzan may change all of that. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. It has conflict. It has a heart. It has what made the early Disney films so much better than the assembly line offerings of the 90s: depth. No one dresses up family drama in such a kid-friendly manner as Disney. Think of heartbreakers Dumbo and Bambi or of Cinderella and her creepy step-family. Tarzan has family tragedy to spare. In the first five minutes of the movie, there’s a fiery shipwreck, and a leopard kills Tarzan’s parents, as well as a cute baby gorilla. Five minutes! Then there’s the adoption of Tarzan by Kala (voiced by Glenn Close), the gorilla mom who lost the baby earlier to that bad leopard. Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) is accepted into the extended gorilla family by all except Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), who sees the future Lord of the Jungle as a threat because he is different. Tarzan just wants to be accepted. Actually, members of the right wing could tout this movie as a sensitive, politically correct manifesto (though Jerry Falwell has nothing to worry about; Tinky Winky is nowhere to be found in this forest). There is the theme of acceptance and love of those who are different, there’s inter-species adoption, there’s Jane (Minnie Driver), an independent woman with a Jane Goodall bent who quickly matches Tarzan’s wild, vine-swinging ways, and there’s the enduring pro-environment message. The jungle is Eden.
The animation is unbelievable. Stunning, really. Tarzan has lushness and the old Disney reverence for nature and animals that hasn’t been showcased like this for a long time. Art director Dan St. Pierre came up with an incredible new animation technology called “Deep Canvas”. It’s a virtual 3-D format that makes the forest almost more alive than the creatures. There’s a quick scene with blooming flowers and falling water that is fleeting but breathtaking. Tarzan beautifully captures detail, both visually and emotionally. It deserves to be one of the summer’s biggest successes.
But the Phil Collins music stinks. The opening number, with the shipwreck and the juxtaposing of human and gorilla families, is scored dramatically with beating drums and an increasing rhythm that builds and brings you to the edge of your seat and then…Phil Collins starts singing. I imagine Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan, whirling in his grave. The pop score is too contemporary for a movie set in the late 1800’s. It’s distracting. Why are late 20th century movies so afraid of their characters bursting into song? The best number in Tarzan is when his best friend Terk (Rosie O’Donnell) and her entourage happen upon the humans’ camp. The characters sing and it’s great. Why does Disney insist on inserting sugary pop music into its animated movies? Remember the excellent music of The Jungle Book? Pinocchio? Why do we have to listen to sticky sweet vocals by Elton John and Vanessa Williams behind innovative animation? To sell more soundtracks.
Even though Tarzan rises way above recent Disney fare, I still can’t help feeling that the bottom line remains all about how many lovable sidekick mylar balloons can be sold. Tarzan is beautifully animated, ends with a positive message, and is highly entertaining, but I left the theater feeling a little empty. It’s encouraging to see this much emotion in a Disney movie. Hopefully the next one will veer even further from the formula.
+ David Kern