Hollywood and Vine

Thanks to free-swinging animation and a terrific story, 'Tarzan' should help Disney emerge from the jungle of box-office disappointment

June 18, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Now here's a Tarzan who really swings.

It helps, of course, that he's a cartoon. No matter how fine an athlete Johnny Weissmuller might have been, he couldn't entirely defy gravity while swinging through those jungle trees.

But an animated ape man can do just that, which makes Disney's "Tarzan" one of the best adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories -- best in the sense that this dude really does come across as more ape than man, swinging effortlessly through the trees with blinding speed.

That freedom makes "Tarzan" one glorious ride, and a whole lot of fun. It's not the most literal adaptation of Burroughs' works; see "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" for that. But "Tarzan" is a winning effort from a Disney animation team that's been in something of a slump recently, getting disappointing (at least at the box office) results from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Mulan."

As myriad Hollywood films have told us, "Tarzan" is the story of a boy raised by apes after his parents are killed by an unforgiving jungle. Found as an infant by a female ape named Kala, he's raised by the clan despite the misgivings of its leader, Kerchak, who's convinced the human baby will never truly be one of them.

Tarzan takes to the ape thing just fine, however, and everything goes along swingingly until she shows up.

She, of course, is Jane, that refined English gentlewoman who finds Tarzan and his loincloth simply too much to resist.

Burroughs had Jane drag Tarzan back to London and become cultured. Disney, however, sticks to the jungle. Tarzan picks up the language OK, but not the refinements; he's still a rough-edged piece of work, struggling with the realization he wasn't born to the culture in which he was raised. It's all about acceptance, first of Tarzan by the apes, then of Tarzan by his English visitors (including Jane's father and a nasty, trigger-happy guide named Clayton) -- a theme that fits the parameters of Disney's niche as cinematic role model to the world's children.

But enough about story; how does it look?

"Tarzan" looks great, with the sort of three-dimensional feel the studio animators haven't conveyed since "Beauty and the Beast." The jungle scenes are masterpieces of animation, prime examples of what can happen when artistry and computer technology work together. And when our jungle man starts swinging through those trees, the adrenalin rush is inescapable.

The animators fumble a little bit with Tarzan himself, giving him a sort of confused pretty-boy look that tends to distract. His features look just a little too sculpted. But the artists make up for it with a wonderful Jane, one of those energetic, self-assured heroines Disney has come to specialize in, and the ape family, particularly the massive Kerchak.

And save for Rosie O'Donnell, who way overdoes the streetwise smart-aleck shtick as Tarzan's ape pal, Terk (can we all agree that a little Rosie goes a long way?), the voices nicely complement the characters. This is particularly true of Tony Goldwyn's Tarzan and Minnie Driver's Jane, whose British accent alone is enough to charm any jungle guy.

Far less effective are the Phil Collins songs used in the soundtrack. They all sound so much alike, save for a silly, impromptu number that springs out of nowhere, that I was surprised to see a whole range of titles roll through the end credits. Then again, Collins has always been among rock's most innocuous stylists, dependable at best, negligible at worst. Unfortunately, Disney hasn't produced a standout soundtrack since the glory days of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast").

But the film here is another matter. Like the best of Disney, "Tarzan" is filled with a sense of wonder that should enthrall filmgoers of any age.

`Tarzan'

Starring the voices of Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver and Glenn Close

Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck

Released by Walt Disney Pictures

Rated G

Running time: 88 minutes

Sun score: ***1/2

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