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Saturday, January 2, 2016

Tarzan (1999) - Review

It’s hard to believe that this is the first big screen attempt at doing the Tarzan story in animation, because if any story lent itself to that medium it would be Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Only a few Tarzan movies have tackled the origin story because depicting a child growing up with apes is a tricky thing to pull off.  In Greystoke:The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes the filmmakers went for a realistic approach, and thus we got a fairly dialogue free first half of the movie, but in the book the Great Apes who raised Tarzan had a language of their own.  Now in literary form that is easy enough to depict while in a movie that would involve guys in apes suits talking which can easily come across as rather goofy looking, but in animation talking animals is nothing new. So the idea of a Disney animated movie of this classic tale is not so much perfect as it is about damn time.

Tarzan Disney 1999

 But do they get the story right or is this just another one of Disney’s many whitewashings of classic tales such as we got with the likes of Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame? That is a tough question to answer, and director’s Kevin Lima and Chris Buck do get a lot right and this really is a decent movie, but it’s just a shame they didn’t have more faith in the original Burroughs’ book to make it a truly great adaptation. The movie opens with a burning shipwreck with the only survivors being an English couple and their infant son. The couple are never named so the fact that Tarzan is really John Clayton, an heir to the Greystoke title, is never addressed making the whole "lord" of the apes thing moot. And once again in the book they were marooned not shipwrecked, as this part of the origin story was handled the same way in Greystoke I’m betting this change was more about saving screen time than just an arbitrary decision.

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“Don’t worry dear, my mutton chops will save us.”

Where this movie diverges greatly from the book is in the handling of the ape leader Kerchak (Lance Henriksen). In the book he is the reason Kala (Glenn Close) loses her baby, she drops her child while being chased by the raging bastard, which then leads to her replacing her loss with that of the baby Tarzan. The fact that Kerchak is the one who killed Tarzan’s father in the book is also nixed here, now his parents are killed off screen by the leopard Sabor, who has also been turned into the killer of Kala’s child as well. This movie could be considered a smear campaign against leopards.  In this movie Kerchak is a gruff leader who does not accept Tarzan as one of their own, but he certainly is not the murderous beast that Tarzan must kill to become Lord of the Apes as depicted in the book.

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“King Kong has nothing on me!”

Interesting to note is that this is the first Tarzan movie where he is shown being raised by Gorillas. Mostly in the past it’s just been dudes in ape suits. In the books Tarzan is part of a group of Great Apes, a mythical missing link that Burroughs created, and which makes a child surviving among them a tad more believable. So without Kerchak as the villain who will be Tarzan’s main antagonist this time round? Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) does face off against Sabor, who he slays before it can kill Kerchak, but the real villain of this piece is Clayton (Brian Blessed), a hunter hired by Professor Archimedes Q. Porter (Nigel Hawthorne) to help locate some gorillas for Porter and his daughter Jane (Minnie Driver) to study. Why the writers decided to use Tarzan’s family name for that of the chief villain is beyond me. In the book there was a William Clayton, who was the unwitting usurper of the ape man's ancestral English estate, but aside from being a romantic threat to his and Jane’s eventually happiness, he really wasn’t much of a villain. In this case Clayton comes from a long line of stock Big White Hunters that have plagued Tarzan through countless adventures.

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“If it bleeds we can kill it.”

For some strange reason Jane is also British and not American as she is in the book, but as Minnie Driver is excellent in this part I will certainly let that one slide. The relationship between Tarzan and Jane is really well done here, and the filmmakers capture the chemistry perfectly between this noble savage and the spunky damsel in distress. When Jane meets Tarzan there is the initial, “Me Tarzan, you Jane” shtick, but he quickly learns English so we aren't stuck with him grunting at her all the time.

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Though he never does learn about personal space.

The films central theme is about family. Where does Tarzan really fit in? Kerchak makes it abundantly clear that he is not considered to be one of the his family, despite Kala’s assurance that they both share the same beating heart, but could Tarzan survive in the “civilized” world if he went back to live with Jane? Finding out that he is not a freakish looking ape, but a man born of human parents, rocks Tarzan’s world to its very foundation, and he feels betrayed by Kala for not telling him about his birth parents. When he is forced to choose between worlds he picks Jane's, and why not as no other ape has seemed interested in dating him.   This also makes Tarzan vulnerable which allows Clayton just the right motivation to trick Tarzan into betraying his family. Turns out Clayton was only using the Porters to locate gorillas so that he could capture and sell them for 300 pounds sterling each.

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Lot of betrayal going on in this movie.

Tarzan’s best friends Terk (Rosie O’Donell) and Tantor (Wayne Knight) stage a rescue, we won’t bother questioning how an elephant can scale the thirty foot side of a freighter, and Tarzan races off to save his family. I must say I did smile when Tarzan arrived at the head of an elephant stampede (which is Tarzan's rescue options one through ten), and his duel with Clayton is pretty intense, but the folks at Disney refrain from letting Tarzan actually kill anyone, and so Clayton has to "accidentally" kill himself by cutting the wrong vine and getting hung.

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Still a pretty gruesome death for a Disney film.

I do understand this is a movie's target audience is children, and that there was no way we were going to get the brutal and cunning savage that Burroughs created way back in 1912, but what Disney did nail so beautifully was on how Tarzan travels through the jungle. With the use of the “Deep Canvas,” the process which allows 2D hand-drawn characters to exist seamlessly in a fully 3D environment, we finally get glimpse as to how Tarzan traveled through jungle as I’m sure Burroughs imagined it. In most movies Tarzan is seen mostly going from tree to tree via a series of strategically placed vines, which if you’ve ever been in a deep forest you'd know that not only isn’t it practical it’s not at all safe, but in this movie he is almost surfing through the branches like an extreme sports athlete.

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Watch out for that tree!

I cannot understate how gorgeous these sequences are, for me these moments of pure jungle running joy are the highlight of the film, and if we had more of this breathtaking animation, and less “comedy” moments with Rosie O’Donnell’s ape atrocity Terk, the movie would be the better for it. Seriously, who thought an ape jamboree musical number was a good idea?

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Forgive them Mrs. Potts, they know not what they do.

Disney’s Tarzan isn’t a traditional animated musical, aside from Terk’s musical masterpiece “Trashin’ the Camp” no one breaks into song, but the movie does have a full musical song list provided by Phil Collins. Now I like Phil Collins quite a bit, and I’d say most the songs in this movie are rather good, I’m just not sold on them being all the right tonally for a pulp adventure story. Most of the numbers are of a low percussion beat that play up the drama of the situation such as “Two Worlds” and “You’ll Be in My Heart” and they do work really well for their intended purposes, but much of the sense of adventure is missing from this score. As this is a movie about a dude who was raised by apes, runs through the jungle mostly naked, and hooks up with a cute girl, I think they could have lightened up a touch on the songs. Or maybe they could have left the songs out entirely and just given us a rousing Max Steiner type score.

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Trivia Note: Tarzan's jungle cry was provided by Brian Blessed.

So no, this isn’t the faithful adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs that some of us have been wishing for, but damn it is still a fun film to watch. I may question a few of their story choices, but as they were making a family friendly animated movie I understand why most of them were made. The central theme of family is handled so well and makes me forgive them not killing off Kala as was done in the book. Her relationship with Tarzan is more integral to this film’s story than the arrival of Jane. This movie is about a mother and son dealing with heavy issues of identity and feelings of belonging. Jane is just some British chippie come to take her son away.

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A gorilla would make for a very dangerous mother-in-law.

We may never see a Tarzan exactly the way Burroughs described him, and I seriously doubt we ever will, but as long filmmakers continue to gives us entertaining romps with everyone’s favorite jungle lord I will be a happy camper.

Final Thoughts:

• Tarzan in the film develops tool building skills all on his own; making a bone knife and a spear to fight off his adversaries. Book Tarzan found his father’s knife and that is what gave him the edge over many of the animals, and he wasn’t adverse to stealing weapons from the local natives.
• Speaking of which this movie steers well clear of racism by not having any natives at all.
• Sabor the leopard is actually a jaguar if you go by the markings, and thus not indigenous to Africa, but as Tarzan fought lions in the books, and they are not know for jungle living, we will give this one a pass.
• Clayton is the standard movie villain who can fire repeatedly without re-loading, even when only armed with a double barreled shotgun.
• This is not Glenn Close’s first time dubbing a voice in a Tarzan film, she was hired to dub over the voice of Andie MacDowell’s Jane in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.
• Somehow the Kerchak, the leader of the apes, is fooled by Tantor and Terk dressed as Professor Porter and Jane.

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Are gorillas known for having poor eyesight?

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