Genuine menace in an animated film. One thrilling shot after another, beginning with the very first image. Note-perfect versions of Tarzan the Ape Man and his love, Jane. One of the cutest and most fun babies I’ve seen in movies. A muscular, energetic, adorable and all-ages-entertaining film that an entire family can enjoy.
Tarzan, as retold by the Disney animation machine, pulls off all that. There are moments that are so perfect, so spot-on (as the British would say), that this is a worthwhile family matinee this summer. Go to this film and hoot, yell and laugh.
I could go on at obnoxious length about the fact that, frankly, Disney is still Disney and, well, I have issues with Disney that I’m not going to get into here. (I’ll just say that I’m really looking forward to Warner Brothers’ animated film The Iron Giant, which I hear is wonderful.)
Maybe Terk the monkey (voiced by Rosie O’Donnell) and Tantor the elephant (the usually reliable Wayne Knight) aren’t very well used; maybe the villain is threatening only because he’s voiced by the deep, deep voice of Brian Blessed (also heard as the lead Gungan in Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace); maybe the all-out grab for gags overwhelms the movie at times; maybe the very-’80s songs by Phil Collins try to cram too many ideas into their lyrics.
But these really turn out to be nitpicks in the midst of a movie as entertaining as this.
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote scads of Tarzan books and created a cottage industry around his creation – he even founded Tarzana, Calif. – and he and Walt Disney probably would have gotten along (they both knew the power of merchandising).
The animated story begins somewhat as Burroughs began it with Tarzan of the Apes in 1914: A British family is shipwrecked on a jungle island and creates a makeshift home; but is then attacked by a tiger that kills the parents. A gorilla mother (Glenn Close) who had lost her own child rescues the baby human, and raises him over the objections of the male (Lance Henrickson) at the center of the animal group. Inevitably, or there’d be no story, more humans arrive and worlds collide, but Tarzan saves the day – as you knew he would. It’s satisfying to see him do that, though.
The biggest positives in Tarzan are the stunning animation – the images feel like something from a roller coaster ride, as we zoom though the canopy of the rain forest like we’re really inside it – and the way Tarzan and Jane come to life.
As animated by the great Glen Keane and voiced by Tony Goldwyn, best known as the friend-turned-villain from Ghost, the adult Tarzan is convincing as a strapping specimen of humanity who’s had to adapt because he’s only seen how non-human animals move through the jungle. (It turns out this is the only Tarzan movie to ever show Tarzan walking on his knuckles, as Burroughs described!) By the way, the baby Tarzan is the uber-adorable kid mentioned earlier.
And Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) as Jane is more than a match for Goldwyn-as-Tarzan. Jane is even-keeled, artistic and smart, and the way she speaks is tinged with both resilience and a sense of humor. She fits the jungle well.
There also is real menace to the tiger, Sabor (thankfully a “real” tiger, not voiced), who kills Tarzan’s parents and later threatens his adoptive family. One of the best moments – visually, musically and emotionally – is when the music by Mark Mancina (Speed) blends with Tarzan’s yell as he triumphantly kills Sabor, saving his ape family.
Disney was smart to ask the Burroughs estate to do this film; this is a perfect candidate for a franchise. There are plenty of Tarzan stories left to tell (thaaaaank you for writing so much about Tarzan, Mr. Burroughs) – and Disney knew how to tell this one.
This modern retelling also, somehow, stays true to the Victorian era where Tarzan stories were set. The scene where Tarzan, having just encountered Jane for the first time, takes off her glove – a moment that kids can think is about curiosity (say “hmmm”) and that adults can think is about intimacy (say “hubba hubba”) – is very seriously Victorian, about as intimate as you could be in Victorian stories. You just know, of course, that this is the first step in Tarzan and Jane falling in love. It’s a good moment, true to the story.
So see it and have a good time with good moments like that.