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In this episode: Tarzan | My Tarzan Yell

Tarzan is as nude as one can possibly be in a G-rated movie. Now that that acknowledgment is out of the way, I'd like to tell any men out there who have wanted to join women in the fight for removing physically impossible protagonists from popular culture that now's your chance! Save your sons from decades of bad diets and mental anguish as they strive to be as physically perfect as Tarzan! You have the example you need! Now, go! Fight!

In the meantime, the rest of us can sit back and enjoy one hell of a dynamic and colorful movie. It's not as satisfying as The Lion King, but there is so much that is so well done in Tarzan, it absolutely stands on its own. Yeah, it borrows a lot from other Disney animated movies, and this got in the way a few times for me. But, hey... Tarzan's not wearing any clothes. That's fairly original for a Disney movie.

The story, as with most Disney animated flicks, is rock solid. It flows, it moves, no shot is wasted and no nuance is useless. This sort of tight storytelling can lead to predictability, and though you get some of that in Tarzan, the movie is so beautiful and really so well put together that you just get swept along, predictability be damned. There are many gorgeous, exciting, dramatic sequences to keep your mind humming to a frequency of happy satisfaction.

First off comes the opening sequence. [NOTE: That sentence is not as stupid as it sounds, for, contrary to common belief, opening sequences do not always come at the opening. See, for example, the opening of Michelangelo Antonioni's rarely-seen masterpiece, Signora Trasparente di Oscuro (Transparent Lady of Obscurity), where the beginning of the film is actually scene 24, in which Grimaldamina is thrown down the staircase by her drunken husband Vito after he finds her keeping a secret diary. The opening scene in Signora, showing Obtusio Bellini smoking a cigarette in front of the Trevi fountain, comes about 48 minutes into the film.] The opening of Tarzan, which sets up how he is orphaned and how he becomes the adopted son of a female gorilla, is exciting, tight, excellent moviemaking. The music is a big element in this success. For a good ten minutes, there are no words in the movie, only the lyrics of the song.

Speaking of which, Phil Collins' Tarzan songs are extremely hummable. Just ask my brain, which has been humming the songs for weeks now and has threatened to kill me if I ever expose it to hummable pop bubblegum ever again. (I just laugh at my brain and feed it more sugar.) Barring one, Phil's songs are not ditties blurted out by characters during elaborate musical numbers. They are more like songs in non-animated films: they help the story along and mirror the action you see on the screen, adding emotional oomph. During the opening scene, you could feel the tension building in the audience. At the conclusion of the sequence, people applauded. And this was a matinee, not an opening night UCLA crowd. The music I'd say was fully half of the reason the sequence worked so well.

The movie packs other emotional wallops, too. Like all Disney films, death is handled with tact—something that has to be done in a G movie. But tact leads to subtlety, subtlety leads to creativity, and, as Yoda says, creativity leads to drama. For instance—and skip ahead if you don't want to know anything about the movie—when Kala first finds Tarzan as a baby, we come into the tree house after Tarzan's parents have already been slaughtered by a leopard. The place is a shambles, rendered all in ghostly blues. The shattered windows and broken furniture suggest violence. Bloody paw prints hint at the massacre while not being overly gruesome. In one shot, which seems to be focusing merely on one disheveled corner of the house, you notice after a second or two the dead bodies of Tarzan's parents. No bloodied limbs and slashed flesh, though. I just saw the father's legs, his blue pants blending into the blue of the scene. It's very subtle... haunting and disturbing for adults, easy for kids to miss. Truly an artistic, creative solution to showing the horror that happened here.

Disney animation is always artistic, and with every movie they try something new and interesting. In Tarzan, the innovation is the 3-D jungle in which Tarzan swings and slides. Lots of computer animation is used here to great effect. Instead of moving through planes of flat scenery, which is the traditional animation technique, here we get to zip through the trees and see branches and leaves realistically pass us by. There are several breathtaking shots of swooping, gliding, and falling. Virtual Steadicam on steroids. Hyperactive editing, the kind so popular with action films these days, adds to the kinetic feel. Because Disney animators know what they're doing, the quick editing never becomes muddy, and nothing is impossible to comprehend. Beautifully done. (Michael Bay should kiss every foot of the Tarzan production team, whose ranks he is not worthy to join.)

Tarzan himself is a well-done character. He's dynamic and sensitive and smart. I don't know if this is in Edgar Rice Borroughs' original books, but here Tarzan is a master mimic. This technique allows him to learn to speak English rather quickly, though it is a little vague how long it takes him to learn what the words mean. (There's your "Tarzan Learns All About Modern Man" montage, but it could be happening in a day, a week, or longer.) It's kinda annoying, but not detrimental to liking the film. And the music again makes the montage very enjoyable. Tarzan as a little kid is fun and, refreshingly, not annoying. Alex D. Linz is the voice of this young Tarzan, and he acts rings around Jake Lloyd. Yeah, it's just his voice, but you can hear the acting there.

Minnie Driver is Jane. Minnie did a great job, but Jane bored me at first. It's probably that whole damsel in distress/lady in love thing. This is a tiny thing, though, because while Jane requires rescuing by Tarzan, she also is her own woman, a very strong character. I liked her by the end of the movie. Clayton, the villain, is done by that guy with the great deep voice, James Earl... er, Brian Blessed. Brian was also Boss Nass, the tic-ticing, slobbering Gungan leader in Star Wars I. His voice is amazing! But he was better as Clayton than as a Gungan. Who wouldn't be? Jane's father, voiced by Nigel Hawthorne, is a little cartoony, but is not nearly as embarrassing as Jar Jar Binks, so I didn't mind him. Kala is a soothing Glenn Close, and Kerchak, the leader of the gorilla herd, is the gruff-voiced Lance Henriksen (who was in Millennium, by Chris Carter, who of course does The X-Files, which has a character called Krycek—Kerchak, Krycek, Kevin Bacon...). The sidekicks are nicely unobtrusive. Except Rosie O'Donnell's Terk. Rosie's voice grated on me a few times and I wished she would just be quiet. Hush, little Rosie. Hush. The best Disney sidekicks are still Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King. They are brilliant and funny characters. Terk and Tantor are just nicely complimentary to the story, and that was fine with me. (Little Tantor is great, though. The funniest character in the movie.)

So the voices are good, the music is good, the story is good, the animation is great. But the formula... well, now, that's the one thing that drew me out of the movie. Many critics have been saying for years that Disney's formula is showing. No matter how good the films are, someone says something about Disney's Formula. Well, allow me to be the one this time. The formula was very apparent to me because of the major amount of borrowing Tarzan does from so many other Disney animated films. You have the freak, out-of-place son; the unaccepting father figure; the deceiving villain; the hero trying to save the villain at the very end but failing; the star-cross'd lovers; the hero growing from baby to kid to adult. These elements stuck out this time, and I found myself consciously placing them with their past Disney homes: The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas, Hercules, etc. It may be that this time there were so many similarities that I had to pay attention. You can find the same patterns in Mulan, for instance, but they are hidden in a rather unique (by Disney standards) setting.

Ah, but never mind. That's a small criticism on the whole. I still enjoyed the movie. I must see it again, in fact, to watch more carefully the superb animation and the structure of the most exciting sequences. Then I can pick it apart and see how it was built. I love doing that, and only take to time to do so for really good movies.

Absolutely see this in a theater if you can. If you like kids, go to a matinee where they will be talking and yelling. If you prefer to see it without all that, avoid the early shows. Either way, you'll like the movie, I think. Just don't wait for the video. This one will lose some punch in a living room.


Tarzan Yell

Here I am almost getting 1st place in the Tarzan Yell contest at the Disney studio. If only my yodel had been stronger...




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©1999 Steven Lekowicz