Sunday, March 6, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (16/50) -- Tarzan (1999)

Back in the summer of 1999, Disney gave the public Tarzan, a monster event of a motion picture if there ever was one. Based on/inspired by the Edgar Rice Burroughs books of the same name, it had brand recognition, a huge budget, and above all (at least, to this Movie Surfer-watching fifth grader), Deep Canvas. Deep Canvas was a new technique that allowed animators to map out three-dimensional backgrounds with a traditionally animated look, giving the camera unprecedented freedom to zoom about this way and that—perfect for a character whose claim to fame is swinging on vines through the jungle.

I remember being in awe of the Tarzan teaser when I went to see Mulan in 1998 (this was how Disney rolled back then: “You think this is going to be awesome, come see what we’ve got next year!”), and loving the movie when I actually saw it a year later. Memory, though, is a fickle mother, and over time my recollection of Tarzan dulled to a faint, “Oh yeah, that one. It was pretty good, I guess.” If this has been you recently, make a point to see this movie again, because Tarzan is AWESOME.

If you're like me and forgot how good Tarzan is, Netflix it, and do it soon.

Tarzan, like the books this movie is based on, is a story of a man raised by apes. Tarzan is found as a baby by a gorilla named Kala (Glenn Close) and raised as her own, though Kala's mate, Kerchak (Lance Henriksen! *melt*), is none too pleased by this. Tarzan (Alex D. Linz) spends much of his early life questioning the obvious differences from him and the group, before finally growing up and becoming comfortable with himself (he also acquires Tony Goldwyn’s voice).

Just as Tarzan is becoming an accepted member of the tribe, a group of strangers arrive in the jungle—strangers that look like Tarzan! The three (very British) explorers are Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne), his daughter Jane (Minnie Driver), and their explorer guide Clayton (Brian Blessed). Kerchak wants nothing to do with them, but Tarzan is curious about them, and, after some careful observation, saves Jane from a group of raging baboons.

Porter and Jane decide to educate Tarzan in the ways of Man in hopes that he will show them gorillas, which they came to the jungle to study. Tarzan is hesitant at first, but becomes fascinated by the many ways he is like them, and especially interested in Jane. His home with the gorillas and his heart with Jane, Tarzan must eventually choose between the jungle that reared him and the humans that found him.

Though not a straight adaptation of Burroughs' novels, Tarzan ultimately hits the emotional heart of the story.

Tarzan is the last film of the Disney Renaissance, before Disney diluted its brand by coming out with three (3!) films in 2000, and started releasing a series of less-than-universal-appealing films (though let it be said that I will defend Atlantis: The Lost Empire to the death). To me, Tarzan always seems lost in the fame of the other films around it; it’s not as unabashedly successful as The Lion King, but not as strange and cult-y as The Emperor’s New Groove. This is unfortunate, because Tarzan has quite a few things going for it, and could be one of my new favorite Renaissance titles.

To start with, Tarzan is staggeringly, breathtakingly GORGEOUS. The much-touted Deep Canvas system offers a sense of freedom heretofore unseen in ANY animated feature, with Tarzan swinging through the jungle with complete 360 degree movement. Whether it’s Tarzan and Jane fleeing from a pack of ravenous baboons, or Tarzan pursuing Sabor the Leopard, the simple act of watching Tarzan just feels exhilarating.

Art direction is also very strong. The Disney staff was clearly at the top of their game here, and everything from the imposing stature of the gorillas to the comparably-frail builds of the humans looks absolutely top-notch. The jungles are also rather impressive, with rich, deep colors and wide vistas, made all the more satisfying to watch as we hurtle through them at breakneck speeds.

The freedom of movement in Tarzan rivals even many modern CG films.

Sonically, Tarzan is rather pleasing. The film is scored by Mark Mancina, who gives the film the bravado it deserves, with well-placed horns and tribal drums throughout. Much has been made of Phil Collins’ “You’ll Be in My Heart,” which won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe (though who gives a toss about the Globes, am I right fellas?). For my money, though, I love “Son of Man” the most, with its soaring melody and energetic tempo (though it could be that I’m simply remembering the way the commercials were edited, and loving the song for being in the commercials). The others are pretty good too, with only one semi-crummy number (seriously, the less said about “Trashin’ the Camp,” the better).

Tarzan boasts an exceptionally strong voice cast as well. Tony Goldwyn impossibly portrays Tarzan with both the roughness of someone who was raised in the wild and the gentleness of someone who merely wants to be accepted. Glenn Close is a perfect choice for a character who needs to be a strong, motherly figure, and Lance Henriksen (*melt*) lends his sub-basement baritone to Kerchak with great effect. The real surprise, however, is Jane. I haven’t seen Minnie Driver in any movies, but she is absolutely fantastic (as the Brits might say), channeling the English gift for wry understatements, while giving her character all of the right emotional notes in the more serious places. The result is one of the most charming characters I’ve seen so far in this retrospective, and potentially one of my favorite female Disney leads to date.

Jane works as both a comic supporting character and an emotional foundation for the movie. If only other characters could imitate her.

If I must make a complaint, though, it’s that Disney had clearly gotten too comfortable with animating talking animals, because the results sometimes look…typical. The gorillas, for all of their muscles and realistic proportions, turn into sitcom characters when not in the presence of humans, rolling their eyes and looking like they’re auditioning for a part in “Full House.” Apart from Kala and Kerchak (who convey the exact amount of emotion to make them seem believable), most of the gorillas’ facial expressions are straight out of a Silly Symphony.

This minor complaint leads me into my major one about the writing. Tarzan, at its core, is a well-written movie; Tarzan’s divisiveness between the gorillas and humans well-realized and articulated, and the major characters have strong and interesting portrayals. The whole effort is undermined, however, by a whole host of obnoxious “kid’s stuff” moments, headlined by Tarzan’s gorilla buddy Terk (Rosie O’Donnell, doing her best impression of 90’s post-Chandler snark) and elephant buddy Tantor (Wayne Knight). Whether it’s Terk and her buddies acting like typical jerk 90’s teenagers (oh boy, a “stop hitting yourself joke. This won’t date the film at all) or Tantor telling someone he’s “had it with [their] emotional constipation,” the film flip-flops between compelling character drama and the non-action parts of a “Power Rangers” episode.

The film's nadir is the section where Tarzan and Terk are kids. Thankfully, it's not that long.

Ultimately, though, Tarzan is a good film, and well-deserving of a second look (especially if you haven’t seen it in a while). Despite being fairly uneven in places, Tarzan’s highs are much more potent than its lows, and they create a film well-worth being called part of the Renaissance.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “Son of Man”
  2. “Two Worlds”
  3. “Strangers Like Me”

Favorite scene:

  • Jane says goodbye / ending curtain call

Favorite character:

  • Jane

The Jar Jar:

  • Terk

How I Watched It

Back in 2005, Disney trumpeted that it was releasing a new two-disc edition of Tarzan, with its veritable bucket overflowing with bonus features and extra material. This turned out to be a total fib, as the version that shipped was a fairly barebones one-disc edition, with little more than the actual movie itself. I picked up the Limited Edition two-disc set from 1999 instead, and am glad for it.

Similar to the newer, single-disc release, there is a feature-length commentary from producer Bonnie Arnold and directors Chris Buck and Kevin Lima, which is supposedly fun and informative. This particular edition of Tarzan, however, comes with a second disc chock full of supplementary goodness.

Extras on the second disc include Tarzan’s history and development (a look at the “Tarzan” novels, research trips, etc.), a look at the music for the film (as well as several music videos), several in-depth character animation segments, and an explanation and demonstration of the Deep Canvas process. Also on the disc are many HUNDERDS of stills, including concept art, backgrounds, and promotional material. This is hands-down the version I will recommend if you’re into bonus features, though you’ll have to go to the internet to find this edition. That said, Tarzan isn’t exactly the most sought-after movie in the Disney canon, and there’s a good chance you can get it for less than $12 on Amazon.

Next up: The Adventures of Icabod and Mr. Toad

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