johnlink ranks TARZAN (1999)

TARZAN is one of the handful of hand-drawn animated films which sprung up in the era just following a Golden Age of such films which provided BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN, and LION KING. By June of 1999, when TARZAN was released, we had already been privy to a TOY STORY movie (with the sequel on the way in November) and A BUG’S LIFE. The Pixar era had unquestionably begun, and it wasn’t about to go away. I’d never seen TARZAN, though it had been sitting on my shelf for close to a decade. I’m not sure why last night was its night, but I suppose it was due.


I watched TARZAN (1999) on 12.15.12. It was my first viewing of the film.

I knew very little about this film before watching it last night. I have a general grasp of the shape a TARZAN movie would take, and I know the classic beats (i.e. “Me: Tarzan; you: Jane”). I also knew that Phil Collins was closely connected to the soundtrack. But I didn’t know any of the actors providing the voices, I didn’t know who the villain was, and I didn’t know how the communication issues would be handled.

What I stumbled upon was a fairly solid story, an above-average animated film, and a whole group of flaws.

This version of TARZAN is best when it sticks to the story of Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) discovering that he isn’t the only human on Earth through his interactions with Jane (Minnie Driver). Jane is on the island with her father, Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne) and a guide with obviously devious intentions, Clayton (Brian Blessed). An intense opening scene shows a baby Tarzan losing his island-stranded parents to a wild leopard. The same leopard kills the gorilla baby of pack leader Kerchak (Lance Henriksen) and Kala (Glenn Close). We are shown the parallels of the two families, and it feels natural when Kala adopts the orphaned Tarzan. The story flows naturally from there, with Tarzan trying to impress his ‘father’ Kerchak, and ultimately discovering his own kind. Which family he chooses to go with and chooses to identify with serves as the core of the film’s thematic  thrust.

There are two characters in this named Terk (Rosie O’Donnell) and Tantor (Wayne Knight). They are a young gorilla and elephant, respectively, who are friends with Tarzan from the time he is a boy. Their presence is an obvious attempt to cash in on the success of Timon and Pumba from the Lion King. Terk is high-pitched and boisterous, Tantor has a deeper voice and is somewhat obtuse. Terk pretends not to like Tarzan, except when it is in her best interest, and Tantor is eager to please. I like Rosie O’Donnell in general, but she has created one of the absolute most annoying characters in the history of Disney films in Terk. Perhaps it is the blatant rip-off in character design, voice, and demeanor of Nathan Lane’s superb Timon which irritates me most, but every time Terk showed up on screen I was eager to get back to the good stuff. Tantor is less annoying, though the writers have him living with the apes for no good reason, stemming from his mother abandoning him for being annoying (apparently, since this is never directly addressed).

And there is good stuff. The filmmaking is surprisingly intricate and successful from a technical standpoint. The integration of computer effects with the hand-drawn elements works seamlessly. Several sequences involve a central character (or characters) being in the middle of the shot and moving with rapid speed. The ‘camera’ rotates and bounces around them allowing the world to feel fully realized as the forest around springs to life. This proves an effective way to make Tarzan’s vine-to-vine flights through the jungle feel dangerous and exciting. Also effective are the movements and mannerisms of Tarzan. He moves like an ape-man and he acts unsophisticated with the humans, using obviously gorilla means to attempt communication. I also love that his hands, in close-ups, are supremely muscular and massive toned, highlighting the way in which he moves.

I was ready for this to be a movie where everyone just spoke English, especially when the film’s first act has Tarzan communicates with all the animals in the jungle in that manner. When the humans are introduced, we see them speaking English as well. When Tarzan and Jane meet, we learn that Tarzan can mimic her, but not speak the language. It is unclear just how much time passes as he visits with the humans to learn their language, but there is surprising subtlety in the way speech is handled. It made for a more rewarding experience.

The music, unfortunately, doesn’t feel quite right. While the songs are all nice, they don’t really fit. When I think jungle, I don’t think Phil Collins at first blush. And the fact that these songs are basically music videos, since they are all non-diegetic, really serve to undermine the flow of the narrative. It felt as though Disney was having a hard time imagining an animated film without music, even if it was creating a film which didn’t need it.

So, I’m somewhat torn by this movie. On one hand, it was satisfactorily entertaining and there were several specific filmic choices which landed correctly. On the other hand, there were plenty of basic choices which serve to undermine the effectiveness of the film as a whole. I would certainly watch this again, and I have an overall positive opinion of TARZAN. But it missed the opportunity to be truly great with a couple of poor decisions.



As a reminder, when ranking an animated film,  ACTING considers the quality of the voice work and the job the animators do in displaying character.





~ by johnlink00 on December 16, 2012.

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