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Review: 'Tarzan' -- Disney goes ape

Movie reviews

Web posted on:
Friday, June 18, 1999 6:05:58 PM EST

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It should come as no surprise by now that the folks at Disney know their animation. Saying that their latest kid-oriented gold mine, "Tarzan," looks spectacular almost seems redundant -- the company's logo (and the amount of money they've committed to promoting the film) should be enough to assure you that it sparkles like a high-tech diamond.

The animators are using a much-ballyhooed technique now called "deep canvas." It lends many of the images a startling amount of depth and texture. You feel like you're getting tangled in the jungle's twisted vines at several points, and the Ape Man's swinging really swings.

Theatrical preview for "Tarzan"
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The movie's biggest highlights are breath-taking point-of-view shots that put you in Johnny Weismuller's old driver's seat, as our hero pivots, slides, dodges, and swerves to the rescue of whomever (or whatever) is currently being menaced. The rides are every bit as sensational as the memorable chariot race in Dreamworks' "The Prince of Egypt," and you don't even have to put up with Sandra Bullock's voice coming out of the mouth of a put-upon Egyptian slave.

Those scene-stealing humans

But, as Disney showcases go, "Tarzan" is oddly temperate in many ways. The usual complaint about these things (when there's actually something to complain about) is that the dancing furniture and singing animals easily outdistance the allure of the "human" characters in the story.

It might be called "Aladdin," but did anybody out there really give a damn about Aladdin himself? Even Pocahontas caught flak for looking like a pampered supermodel -- the studio based her on Christy Turlington -- instead of a Native American woman living in the untamed frontier.

The funny thing about "Tarzan," though, is that it works the other way around. Tarzan and Jane (voiced by Tony Goldwyn and the perfectly-cast Minnie Driver) are a treat. But the elephants and gorillas keep throwing water on the jungle fire.

It's a jungle out there

The story, semi-based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel, rather than just borrowing its name like they used to in the old live-action films, leaves something to be desired. The sequences seem strangely disjointed, with Phil Collins' VH1-ready songs suddenly popping up out of nowhere to "overwhelm" you with emotion when you'd rather stick with a little character development. (Why Collins, of all people? Did Elton John hurt his back making a bank deposit?)


'Tarzan' swings to Phil Collins' beat

You already know the basic story. Baby Tarzan and his parents wind up lost in all that nifty vegetation after a rather exciting shipwreck.

There's this gorilla named Kala -- voiced by Glenn Close, moving up a notch in the Tarzan-dubbing sweepstakes after supplying Andie McDowell's lines in "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan." One day, Kala stumbles upon him after his mom and dad have apparently been deep-sixed by an angry leopard. (It's not like you couldn't see it coming. Biological parents in Disney pictures have a shorter shelf-life than cottage cheese stored at room temperature.)

Kala's ape-husband, Kerchik (Lance Henriksen) objects, but still allows her to bring the young boy into the fold and raise him as her own.

In the early going, there's a nice sequence in which we see Tarzan growing up and getting his tree legs, so to speak. By the time he's a full-grown man, he can zip through the foliage like a weight-lifting squirrel, squatting and thrusting from tree to tree without so much as a splinter in his palm.

This fun stuff is sadly interrupted, however, by interludes with his best friends, an annoying gorilla named Terk (voiced by Rosie O'Donnell, and you can supply your own joke) and a periodically amusing elephant that sounds just like Newman on "Seinfeld," because Wayne Knight supplies the dialogue.

She Jane


There's the usual "just because you're different, it doesn't mean you're no good-blah-blah-blah" conversations, but things pick up considerably when Jane, her father (Nigel Hawthorne) and a Clark Gable-like, trigger-happy guide (Brian Blessed) come shuffling through the underbrush, looking for some gorillas to study. One glance at the guide and you know he's out to capture or even kill some of the gorillas, but Jane and her dad don't notice until it's too late ... or at least not until the movie is practically over. (Hey! Pay attention there, guys!)

No matter what the role, Driver always stands tall as the international standard-bearer for sheer spunk, and her earthy voice is one of her foremost weapons. The sequence in which Jane and Tarzan are being pursued by a pack of ticked-off orangutans is all the more engaging because of Driver's whoops and screeches as she and Mr. Shirtless zip through the trees at a break-neck pace. And her laugh (which gets me every time) sounds like it originates down around her belly-button and rises up through a will of its own.

Jane is the real star of this particular "Tarzan," and she gets bonus points for not singing any of those supposedly uplifting, high-gloss songs. Tarzan heroically taking it upon himself to run away with her at the risk of major bodily harm is enough of a thrill all by itself.

"Tarzan" is less intense than a lot of Disney's animation spectaculars. A leopard gets killed in a fight that might frighten very young children for a second or two. The other action scenes are like especially nutty amusement park rides, minus the annoying vomiting. Rated G. 88 minutes.

'Tarzan' swings to Phil Collins' beat
June 18, 1999
Disney 'walking on air' over 'Mulan' debut
June 22, 1998

Official 'Tarzan' site

World of Disney

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