ANIMATION BRINGS OUT the best in Tarzan. The impossible flexibility of a cartoon ape-man leaps out first: He twines through the trees, twisting this way and that with inhuman dexterity, sliding down mossy branches like a skate punk in a loincloth. But it's the details that turn this cartoon feature into something truly interesting—the shift of Tarzan's shoulders, the splay of his toes, the delicacy with which he brushes the cheek of his adoptive mother gorilla with the back of his hand. Animation can focus on these tiny bits of verisimilitude and make each muscular motion an expression of Tarzan's whole consciousness. And Tarzan's inner life, intriguingly enough, is what Disney's Tarzan is all about.
directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck
starring the voices of Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Nigel Hawthorne
opens June 18 at Crossroads, others
This version of the story—the 48th movie to be made about Edgar Rice Burrough's classic pulp hero—strips the plot back to the basics: A shipwrecked English couple wash ashore in the African wilds. Their untimely death (which happens somewhat between the lines) leaves their infant son alone in the jungle until a gorilla mother who's lost her own child adopts the small hairless creature. Tarzan struggles and finally succeeds in claiming a place for himself in the gorilla herd; still, he believes himself to be some kind of freak until some British explorers (including the comely Jane Porter, here a willowy but stalwart Victorian adventuress) come hunting gorillas. Suddenly confronted with his own kind, Tarzan must decide who he is and where he truly belongs.
Liberal parents will be pleased that this Tarzan is not the colonialist king of the jungle here. He doesn't order the other animals about; he's just another creature in the jungle. He generally avoids conflict and shows respect to the head of the gorilla clan. There also, pleasantly enough, is very little reference to the modern world—at least in comparison with some other Disney flicks. The comic relief characters—a tomboy gorilla named Terk, voiced by Rosie O'Donnell, and a neurotic elephant named Tantor, voiced by Wayne Knight (formerly Newman on Seinfeld)—make some anachronistic jokes, but for the most part such camping is set aside. Instead, Victorian elements are used to gorgeous effect, particularly in a sequence where Tarzan learns about the world at large by being shown slides. The projected slides are taken from engravings of everything from a waltzing couple to the Mona Lisa, and they build to an elegant crescendo of eye-opening images.
Another factor contributing to the movie's rich emotional texture is the unusually superb voice work of Minnie Driver; in collaboration with the character animators, she gives Jane a vivid personality that makes her more than the standard love interest.
It's to Disney's credit that the rise and fall of Tarzan's emotions drives the narrative. The standard good guybad guy, win-lose part of the story (one of the explorers wants to cage the gorillas and take them back to a zoo) is little more than a subplot, resolved as perfunctorily as possible. Which is not to say there aren't explosive action sequences; Tarzan's duel with a leopard and a pack of baboons pursuing him and Jane through the trees will satisfy everyone looking for a jolt of adrenaline. But the emotional relationships will linger. My young friend Rebecca, when asked about the movie, first described the scene when Tarzan emerges from the wrecked tree house of his parents; dressed in human clothing for the first time, he kneels before his gorilla mother and presses his palm against hers. Said Rebecca, "It was kind of sad."