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Movie Review

Vine, Woman and Song

'Tarzan' soars triumphantly as Disney tells the familiar story of the square-jawed ape-man and his lady Jane in inventive, entertaining ways (and with a satisfyingly novel soundtrack).

June 16, 1999|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

How deep and forbidding is the jungle? How piercing is an ape-man's cry? How eager is Hollywood to cash in on something that's been previously successful? That's how many times "Tarzan of the Apes," Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 tale of a man raised by gorillas, has been transferred to film.

Well, maybe not quite that many times, but historians report that "Tarzan" has been turned into nearly 50 features since Elmo Lincoln created the role in 1918, and that's not counting multi-part serials, TV series and Jimmy Durante's comic riff as Schnarzan in a 1934 film called "Hollywood Party."

Yet the current Disney version is the first time Burroughs' character has been done as animation, and, in the will-wonders-never-cease department, this umpteenth "Tarzan" (directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck) turns out to rank with the best of the group.

Combining adroit vocal casting (based on ability not box office) with an entertaining script, an unexpectedly energetic (and non-Disney musical) soundtrack and some splendid technical breakthroughs, the animated "Tarzan" underscores why this story has captivated so many people for so long.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 17, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 60 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong name--The review of "Tarzan" in Wednesday's Calendar contained an incorrect name for the actor who voiced the role of the elephant Tantor. The actor is Wayne Knight.

When we think of Tarzan, moving easily through the trees is close to his defining characteristic, and that's where the Disney film sets a new standard. Helped by a recent computer software program called Deep Canvas, which adds noticeable levels of depth and dimension to backgrounds, this Tarzan can swing through the jungle in a much more exhilarating and breathtaking way than reality-based film can hope to match.

The ape-man's supervising animator, Glen Keane, who also did the honors for the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast," says his son's skateboarding was one of the inspirations for Tarzan's magical fluidity. Keane has also been careful to use animation's resources to give Tarzan the kind of physically convincing musculature that makes sense for someone who's lived almost his entire life among jungle animals.

Before Tarzan can dazzle with his vine-swinging, he has to get to Africa in the first place, and the story opens with an intense and convincing fire on a ship that leaves an infant boy and his parents stranded in a jungle treehouse.

The jeopardy in this film is consistently real, and Tarzan's parents are soon terminated by a fierce leopard named Sabor. That's the same animal who recently deprived silver-back gorilla parents Kala (Glenn Close, who dubbed Andie MacDowell's voice in the Tarzan film "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes") and Kerchak (Lance Henriksen, whose live-action roles would horrify this film's intended audience) of their infant son.

After a terrifying encounter with Sabor (another example of the film's inventive visual style), Kala finds the boy and tells Kerchak she wants to raise him. "It's not our kind," Kerchak responds unenthusiastically, but though wives always win these kinds of face-offs in Disney films, Kerchak has the last word. The boy can stay, but he won't consider him his son.

With its theme of acceptance and belonging, of a son wanting to prove himself to a father figure thus set (does anyone think it's a coincidence that the film is opening just before Father's Day?), "Tarzan" can't be accused of not fitting snugly into the tradition of well-meaning Disney animation.

But while many of the studio's recent cartoon features have seemed disappointingly pro forma, "Tarzan" is an example of the formula operating on a higher level than usual, with individual elements better conceived and executed across the board.

For one thing, the film's comic sidekicks like gorilla galpal Terk (Rosie O'Donnell) and worrywart elephant Tantor (Wayne King) are actually funny. Also, though the script felt the touch of numerous hands (the studio publicity material mentions "Gorillas in the Mist's" Tab Murphy getting first crack, Bob Tzudiker & Noni White upping the family values quotient, and Dave Reynolds, who gets an "additional screenplay material" credit along with Jeffrey Stepakoff, punching up the dialogue), the result feels surprisingly of a piece.

Also effective was the decision to avoid the by-now overly familiar Broadway musical formula of having characters periodically break into song. Instead, singer-songwriter Phil Collins was retained, and he provides five original compositions that, along with Mark Mancina's score, give "Tarzan" a narrative overlay that adds coherence and energy to the proceedings.

The adult Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn), gifted with the squarest jaw since Fearless Fosdick, gets the surprise of his life when his jungle is invaded by creatures he thinks he's never seen: fellow human beings. Specifically it's pompous guide Clayton (Brian Blessed), a professor eager to learn more about gorillas (Nigel Hawthorne) and the professor's daughter (Minnie Driver), a charming young woman whose name just happens to be Jane.

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