Disney’s ‘Tarzan’ Is a Visual Thrill Ride

[22 August 2014]

By Jeremiah Massengale

Disney’s Tarzan is typically considered the last film in the “Disney Renaissance”, the celebrated period of Walt Disney Animation Studios that produced classics like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty & The Beast, and The Lion King. While rightfully not as celebrated or beloved as those aforementioned films, Tarzan still deserves its place among those Disney animated juggernauts. For a film about a man who swings through the trees, it really holds its ground.

Now available on Blu-ray, the spirited adventure film has never looked more spectacular. Prior to the Disney release in 1999, there had already been over 40 films about Tarzan, starring everyone from Buster Crabbe to Christopher Lambert to Casper Van Dien. Needless to say, hardly any of them were worth remembering. While Disney’s Tarzan isn’t likely to be anyone’s all-time favorite Disney masterpiece, it’s hard to imagine someone not enjoying this take on the Lord of the Apes; it’s by far the best version of Tarzan to hit theaters.

This adaptation of the Tarzan of the Apes story is filled with movement as it proceeds at a breakneck pace. The 88 minutes of storytelling are fluid and more action-adventure heavy than your typical Disney flick, but it still has plenty of heart and enough comedic moments to give Tarzan a wide range of appeal.

If you haven’t seen it in years, the film is more intense than you might recall; it has to get through three deaths (albeit off screen) in its opening minutes. As a result, the infant Tarzan finds himself stranded in Africa after a dramatic shipwreck and deprived of his parents thanks to a ferocious leopard. In the film, he’s adopted and raised by a tenderhearted gorilla named Kala (voiced by Glenn Close) who also lost her child. What follows is a tale of Tarzan grappling with his unusual appearance and trying to prove himself to the very apes that reject him. There is an obvious (but never quite heavy-handed) theme of looking past appearances to appreciate those that are different. This message is belted out during one of the Phil Collins songs (“Two Worlds”) that accompany the film: “Two worlds, one family.”

By the time the lovely Jane arrives in the jungle alongside a group of late-Victorian British explorers, Tarzan is fully grown, a brilliant physical specimen still searching for his rightful place in the world. Jane is full of moxy and spunk, voiced to perfection by Minnie Driver. Driver’s energetic, throaty vocal performance helps make Jane a fully realized character. Ironically, the jungle man and the feisty Brit actually have an endearing love story. When Jane exclaims, “I’m in a tree with a man who talks to monkeys!”, it doesn’t seem absurd to actually understand her excitement. Perhaps as a result of that, when Tarzan finds himself torn between two words—the jungle and Jane’s city of London—the Disney movie comes a different ending than the original story by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In contrast to the filmmakers’ otherwise admirable take on the Tarzan mythology is the addition of a wacky sidekick for the hero, a common addition to Disney films. The argumentative tomboy gorilla Terk (voiced by a grating Rosie O’Donnell at the peak of her popularity) is Disney’s most unintentionally annoying sidekick since Cinderella’s Gus. Terk is, no doubt, intended to provide comic relief in between heartaches, chases and throwdowns. However, Terk’s lines aren’t especially funny, and she adds absolutely nothing to the storyline. As a result, to anyone over the age of 12, Terk is as likeable as a snakebite.

Even so, kids will surely love the film’s zaniest moments, which often feature Terk, like the “Trashin’ the Camp” song/montage. However, rest assured adults will be able to look past the film’s few shortcomings (including its lack of a true villain) to marvel at the overall visual spectacle and well-structured plot. The characters don’t even break out into song; as a welcome alternative, catchy Phil Collins tunes simply accompany the montages onscreen. Grownups do not need to have a child alongside them to enjoy this telling of Tarzan; none are better, no matter what the target demographic.

Disney’s Tarzan proves the medium of animation is best suited for bringing the beloved, and yet still woefully underrated, Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs to life. Not only can Tarzan communicate and interact with the wildest of creatures with ease in a cartoon setting, here directors Chris Buck and Kevin Lima take full advantage of the medium by allowing Tarzan to move through his jungle surroundings with the freedom, force, and fluidity completely unattainable in live-action filmmaking. He swings through the trees, as you might expect, but he also madly slides down curvy tree limbs, grasps vines with his feet almost as often as he does with his hands, and generally hurls himself forward while in complete control of his destination, contorting his body like a wild ape in the process. In one iconic sequence in particular, the loin-cloth-clad protagonist ends up almost surfing through the jungle’s bending loops of branches, sliding barefoot on the moss-covered trees like a reckless X-Games competitor.

While the lively characters are in Disney’s once trademarked style of traditional hand-drawn animation, for Tarzan the studio also debuted a process called Deep Canvas, a revolutionary computer animation tool that allows two-dimensional characters to move throughout a three-dimensional world. The effect adds tremendous depth and details during the hero’s swoops through a rather convincing 3D jungle landscape. There’s a sequence full of panoramic shots where Tarzan rescues Jane from a pack of baboons and they hurtle through the treetops, slide down towering mossy tree branches, and swing away from danger on byways of vines; it’s not only a visual jolt to the audience, it’s something like a roller-coaster ride.

The Blu-ray disc comes amped with bonus features, but none seem to be new to the Blu-ray collection. Instead, a few of them seem to be poor VHS-quality transferred featurettes about the making of the film. However, include in the extras is a video of Phil Collins performing one of his original songs for the film alongside *NSYNC; it—despite being quite cheesy—really swings.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/184733-disneys-tarzan-is-a-visual-thrill-ride/