Screenplay : Tab Murphy and Bob Tzudiker & Noni White (based on the novel "Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 1999
Consider the following passage from Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 pulp classic, "Tarzan of the Apes":
"He could spring twenty feet across space at the dizzy heights of the forest top, and grasp with unerring precision, and without apparent jar, a limb waving wildly in the path of an approaching tornado. He could drop twenty feet at a stretch from limb to limb in rapid descent to the ground, or he could gain the utmost pinnacle of the loftiest tropical giant with the east and swiftness of a squirrel."
Well, the fact is, no man can do that, not even the famous Johnny Weissmuller in all his Olympic glory. It is for this reason that the story of Tarzan, the young English lord raised by apes in the heart of mythical Africa, is so suitable for an animated medium, and therefore surprising that Disney's new take on the material is the first to go in that direction. More than 70 movies have been made about Tarzan in the last 80 years, and because they have all been live action and, therefore, hindered by the physical realities of the human body, none have achieved the kind of graceful, speeding imagery Burroughs' wonderfully adroit prose so easily conjures up in the mind.
Disney's animated "Tarzan" comes close--it is a fast-paced visual marvel with heart and a bit of humor. Its beautiful hand-drawn cells coupled with the latest in computer animation creates a previously unimagined three-dimensionality on-screen, bringing it as close as any moving visual medium can to evoking the mystical grandeur of Tarzan, who has rightfully taken his place as one of the most durable literary characters of the 20th century.
As with most Disney films based on well-known material, this "Tarzan" is liberally adapted from its source material. Once the basic set-up is in place (Tarzan's British parents are shipwrecked on the shore of Africa where they set up house and are eventually killed, leaving the baby Tarzan to be adopted by the gorillas), "Tarzan" goes off in its own direction. However, because "Tarzan of the Apes" has been adapted into so many different media--from comic books to radio serials to the movies--and Edgar Rice Burroughs himself wrote 24 books, Tarzan is an extremely flexible character who can maintain his basic mythological qualities, even if the surrounding elements are altered or modernized.
Much of the violent imagery of the Tarzan books is minimized here, although there are several action sequences that are quite intense. The movie also dispenses with the none-too-subtle racism of the source material by simply dropping any storylines that involve Tarzan crossing paths with African natives.
Unfortunately, the movie also dispenses with the idea that Tarzan is a descendent of the royal Greystoke family, and therefore a member of the English aristocracy. Perhaps this was done to democratize Tarzan, but it removes a layer of ironic meaning that gave social depth to his jungle adventures. Instead, the movie smoothly incorporates '90s-style themes of diversity and a love of nature.
Thankfully, the Disney Formula is kept to a minimum, although it still dictates that adults be reminded from time to time that this is a kids' movie. There are the assorted wise-cracking sidekick characters, including Rosie O'Donnell voicing Tarzan's best ape friend, Terk, and "Seinfeld's" Wayne Knight lending his vocals to a persnickety elephant named Tantor. However, unlike last summer's "Mulan," directors Chris Buck and Kevin Lima do not try to shoehorn ill-fitting musical numbers into material that doesn't demand them. Pop star Phil Collins lends a number of songs to the soundtrack that have thematic relevance to the story, but they are kept in the background. Aside from an amusing scene where a bunch of gorillas turn a typewriter, a clothesline, and other assorted human oddities into on-the-spot musical instruments, there are no musical numbers.
The real show here are the astounding visuals, and the filmmakers use a new computer-aided process called Deep Canvas to bring the vibrant African jungles to life. Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn) and Jane (voiced by Minnie Driver) swing and fly through a three-dimensional animated jungle, and the camera tracks them as if they were in a physical reality. Tarzan doesn't so much swing through the jungle as he surfs through it, sliding down leafy branches, gliding from vine to vine, falling hundreds of feet before grabbing a limb and swinging himself upwards--in other words, doing exactly what Edgar Rice Burroughs' always pictured him doing.
Because of this, "Tarzan" is a richly satisfying experience--it evokes wonder and excitement with unending gusto. The movie rarely slows down, even when the romance between Tarzan and Jane begins to blossom. The movie doesn't get as much mileage from its villain--a vicious gorilla hunter named Clayton (Brian Blessed)--as most Disney movies do, but it isn't much of a detraction. The real wonder in this movie is watching something that had previously existed only in the imagination spring to life on-screen in a way that has never been seen before.
©1999 James Kendrick