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WITH `TARZAN,' IT'S A DISNEY JUNGLE OUT THERE.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Critic

There have been 48 Tarzan movies, but the rollicking new version from Disney is the first to ever take the Lord of the Jungle into the world of animation. Edgar Rice Burroughs, the character's creator, apparently dreamed of an animated Tarzan, going so far as to tell his son in a letter, ``The cartoon must be good. It must approximate Disney excellence.''

Or, at least, that's the version according to Disney.

And ``Tarzan,'' the studio's 37th feature-length effort, does approach Uncle Walt's cartoon excellence for much of its 88 minutes, particularly in the way it imagines its legendary title character. This is a Tarzan that Burroughs would love, one who moves like an animal (a visiting hunter mistakes him for the ``missing link'') and slides through the jungle like a surfer riding a wave. It's the most fully realized Tarzan we've ever seen, if only because Johnny Weissmuller simply wasn't physically capable of performing the sort of feats that Burroughs described in his books.

This being an animated film, the Disney Tarzan can also do one other important thing that Weissmuller never could - talk to the animals. And they talk back.

Of course, for better or worse, that means that this movie follows the Disney formula of having cute animal sidekicks on board as comic sidekicks (and merchandising gold mines). Thus we have Tarzan's obnoxious little ape pal, Terk (gratingly voiced by Rosie O'Donnell) and a mischievous elephant named Tantor (``Seinfeld's'' Wayne Knight).

And this being a Disney animated film, we have the requisite Important Lessons to be learned, themes that once again revolve around family, acceptance and self-worth. Unfortunately, these issues are explored so quickly and superficially that their resolution will likely only resonate with the younger set, who will no doubt appreciate having everything spelled out for them right down to the smallest detail.

That said, ``Tarzan'' marks a triumphant return to the type of ``Lion King'' accessibility that parents of smaller children will undoubtedly appreciate. Unlike, say, the sexually charged ``Hunchback of Notre Dame,'' this is not a movie that will prompt many questions revolving around the birds and the bees. (Unless they happen to pop up in the movie's emerald green jungle.)

The film's first half-hour finds Tarzan in the jungle as an orphaned young infant. (Be warned: Disney scores the hat trick in killing off parental figures in this feature.) A female gorilla, Kala (tenderly voiced by Glenn Close), who has recently lost her own child, adopts him - much to the dismay of her mate, Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), the leader of the gorillas. ``He's not our kind,'' Kerchak protests.

And, indeed, as Tarzan (Alex Linz handles the vocal chores for the young Tarzan; Tony Goldwyn voices the older version) grows up, he wonders why he's so different from the others. This doesn't stop him from learning to swing (through the jungle) and commune as an equal with the animals, though.

The one thing he doesn't do is break out in song. Directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck have wisely decided to use Phil Collins' songs as background to the story rather than have the ape man do a soft shoe in his loincloth. There's a particularly effective sequence where we watch Tarzan the tyke become Lord of the Jungle to the propulsive and melodic beat of Collins' ``Son of Man.''

The movie's conflict comes when the humans arrive. There's Jane, of course, (deftly voiced by Minnie Driver), her professor father (Nigel Hawthorne) and a one-note villain (Brian Blessed) who shoots first and asks questions later. Tarzan finds himself strangely attracted to these creatures, particularly Jane, and soon enough finds himself dreaming up monkey business that has nothing to do with his gorilla buddies.

Eventually, he must choose camps - apes or humans.

The movie's chief pleasure is the animation, particularly the sequences that show Tarzan's perspective as he flies through the jungle. (Think of the front-row view from a roller coaster, and you get the sensation.)

Tarzan himself is remarkably drawn by artist Glen Keane as a compelling jumble of chin, shoulders and thighs. He's one of the most vivid characters ever to appear in a Disney animated film.

Naturally, Burroughs deserves much of the credit for that. Tarzan, for good reason, remains one of the most permanently fixed characters in movie history.

If this Tarzan doesn't quite measure up to the Lord of the Jungle legend, he comes close enough. He'll certainly be lord of your child's toy chest for the rest of the summer.

THE FACTS

The film: ``Tarzan'' (G).

The stars: Voices of Glenn Close, Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Nigel Hawthorne, Lance Henriksen, Wayne Knight, Rosie O'Donnell, Brian Blessed and Alex Linz.

Behind the scenes: Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck. Screenplay by Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, based on the story ``Tarzan and the Apes'' by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Released by Disney.

Running time: One hour, 28 minutes.

Playing: Opens today at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood; expands citywide on Friday.

Our rating: Three stars.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Edgar Rice Burroughs' loincloth-clad hero rescues Jane from a pack of irate baboons in ``Tarzan.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jun 16, 1999
Words:861
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