Rating -

Animated (US); 1999; Rated G; 88 Minutes

Glenn Close: Kala
Minnie Driver: Jane Porter
Tony Goldwyn: Tarzan
Nigel Hawthorne: Professor Archimedes Q. Porter
Lance Henriksen: Kerchak
Wayne Knight: Tantor
Alex D. Linz: Young Tarzan
Rosie O'Donnell: Terk

Produced by Bonnie Arnold and Christopher Chase; Directed by Chris Buck and Kevin Lima; Screenwritten by Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White; based on "Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Few movies bounce off the screen and into the laps of their viewers, but Disney's "Tarzan" accomplishes that feat with a vengeance. Here, we have animation at its very best; the hero swings through the trees on vines as if he is on a roller coaster. Using the new process that the studio calls the "Deep Canvas," the backgrounds flow with incredible freedom around the characters, complicated with action but never too overwhelming. The feeling is a refreshing approach to the "Tarzan" myth, and a reminder of the power that Disney has when it comes to animation.

The film is the newest in a line of successful Disney cartoons: it follows "Mulan," "Hercules," "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame," "Pocahontas," "The Lion King," "Aladdin," "Beauty And The Beast," and, of course, the mother of them all, "The Little Mermaid." For ten, long years, the studio has pushed the envelope of the possibility of animated filmmaking, using their impressive talents to improve upon cartooning techniques, at the same time of implementing new interpretations of famous stories. And it is within these new interpretations that a continuing formula is evident, in which characters are divided by their beliefs, and brought together by a middleman, who looks at them and asks, "why?" Don't quite understand the concept? Then consider this: could man have understood woman without the help of Mulan, and could humans have understood the gypsies without Quasimodo?

The picture begins with some of the darkest footage the studio has attempted since "The Black Cauldron." In ten minutes of pulse-pounding, amazing film, a mother gorilla loses her child to the fangs of a leopard, and an infant human loses his parents to the same predator. The curious eyes of Kala, the gorilla, eventually take her up into the tree-house of a human family. She sees the footprints of a feline soaked in blood, and two bodies lying in the corner. Then she spots the infant in a crib, surrounded by shadows, filled with cries. Grieving for her loss, and that of this child's she rescues it from potential death, after the leopard appears to still reside at the scene of this intense crime. We get our first taste of this "deep canvas" process in the gorilla's attempt to escape the house without any harm, swinging from wood beams to curtains, and eventually tree limbs. The looks is magnificent.

The leader of the apes, Kerchak, also the father of the lost infant gorilla, is disapproving of Kala's find. "He can stay, but that does not make him my son." Kala and Tarzan then begin a bond that continues throughout the movie, in which the animators prove that no matter what is on the outside, it is what's inside that makes you lovable.

Twenty years pass (I think). Young Tarzan has now grown into a handsome, acrobatic man with rippling muscles and honest eyes. The first men arrive in the jungle in search of gorillas, and the swinger looks at them in confusion. He was, after all, never told that there were others out there who look like him. The first one he approaches is named Jane (Minnie Driver), who in turn is astonished that an actual human being understands the gorillas and lives with them. Of course, Jane and her father jump at the opportunity to meet the apes up close, but a third, villainous party wants to trap them for profit. This leads to a series of events that determine each group's ignorance, where Tarzan's only family is almost kidnapped, and the people who trust him must also learn to trust a species that they have had no contact with.

All of these adventures and mishaps are ideal to the Disney formula. As always, they come across effective because the animators are busy structuring them around breathtaking, invigorating animation. Much of the detail is not just in the exhilarating backgrounds, but the sharp characters as well. Tarzan himself is constructed like a combination of a surfer and skate-boarder, in order for him to successfully navigate the limbs of trees deep in the jungle. And Turk, the wisecracking ape, sounds like, and looks like, Rosie O'Donnel, of course. The thing with Disney is that their formula hardly ever gets tired, because they always find new ways to approach it.

The last decade for Disney animation has explored the themes of ignorance creatively and vigorously, but "Tarzan" is at the absolute core of the formula. Rather than keeping us at distance with the suggested themes (like "Mulan," which never actually came out and asked the questions), it reveals them to us directly, with the dialogue, "why are you so challenged by someone who is different?" What does this all mean? Perhaps it clarifies that Disney is getting tired of the same old formula, and we are as well. So, "Tarzan" serves as an effective treatment of the legend of the jungle hero, it also provides us with the feeling that, perhaps, the formula has reached its peak, and thus must now be laid to rest.

In order to successfully recapture their lost originality in the animated market, Disney must now make some changes. They will be seen (hopefully) this December with "Fantasia 2000," and later next year with "Kingdom Of The Sun." In the meantime, "Tarzan" will provide viewers with the traditional annual cartoon experience, in which your eyes are dazzled, your mind occupied with the same situations and sub-par setups. The movie is charming and memorable; a new take on an old favorite.

1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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