Eric D. Snider

Tarzan

It's a tradition: Every summer, Disney releases a new animated film with Broadway-style songs, a main character with missing parent or parents, wacky anthropomorphic sidekicks, and a moral-of-the-story ending that adds up to "Just be yourself and people will like you."

Except for its songs being more adult-contemporary than Broadway, "Tarzan" is no different.

Which is a good thing. The tried-and-true formula works for Disney, and the animation -- which gets better each year, and reaches its zenith with "Tarzan's" lush forests and fantastic action sequences -- gives the films an added degree of quality.

"Tarzan," based on the familiar Edgar Rice Borroughs stories, opens with a young married couple and their baby being shipwrecked on an island. A leopard kills the parents, somehow missing the baby, and an ape whose own baby was recently killed by the same leopard (the only leopard in the jungle, apparently) adopts the baby as her own.

That ape is named Kala (voice of Glenn Close), and she names the baby Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn). The leader of the ape group, Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), who might be Kala's husband and who also might just be the only male in the group (I don't pretend to understand primate society), doesn't want the boy there because he's different.

And there we have our theme: Tarzan is different from the others. He soon becomes every bit as agile and capable as his simian friends, surfing along tree branches and eating bananas like a pro, but he is bothered by his obvious dissimilarities. It's a metaphor for whatever you want it to be a metaphor for, and it's something everyone can relate to, as we've all felt like outsiders at some point in our lives.

Soon a pretty British girl named Jane (Minnie Driver) arrives, accompanied by her daft father (Nigel Hawthorne) and blood-thirsty guide Clayton (Brian Blessed). They want to find the gorillas in order to study them, except for Clayton, who wants to kill them, or put them on display, or eat them, or whatever.

(The movie isn't too concerned about what Clayton's plans are; suffice it to say, he's a HUNTER, and like all hunters in Disney cartoons, he's bad.)

Jane runs into Tarzan, and they begin to learn each other's language. She wants to meet his "family" in the interest of science, but Kerchak wisely advises Tarzan against it, sensing danger. Of course Tarzan does it anyway, Clayton tries to capture the primates, there's some heavy-duty gorilla warfare, and there's a "storybook" (i.e., impossible and impractical) ending.

The nutty sidekicks that have been the hallmark of Disney films are here, but their role is diminished. Rosie O'Donnell voices Turk, Tarzan's young ape pal, and Wayne Knight ("Seinfeld's" Newman) voices a worrisome elephant youth named Tantor. Much of the comic relief in the film, theirs included, is not especially funny. The film is not dark or somber; it just doesn't attempt comedy as much as you might expect, and what it does attempt often falls flat.

But it more than makes up for it in action. One sequence, in which the anatomically incorrect Tarzan rescues the equally-impossibly-shaped Jane from a herd of angry baboons and an ensuing series of calamities, is breath-takingly exciting -- almost as much as the light-saber duel in a certain new "Star Wars" film. The animation is seamless and fluid, and by the end of the scene, you may feel embarrassed at having felt so much tension over just a cartoon.

A few other scenes -- Tarzan's battle with the leopard, Clayton's attack on the gorilla nests -- are equally thrilling. I hesitate to call them "intense," because I think most kids could probably still handle them, but parents of especially young children (under 4) might want to be careful.

Phil Collins provides the songs that narrate the story, and unlike "The Lion King" and "Pocahontas," they do not distract. In fact, they rather admirably add to the jungle atmosphere of the film. Whereas previous films have had to interrupt their story-telling to include the songs (no matter how fun the songs were, they were still an interruption), "Tarzan" lets the action continue, without dialogue, and lets the music summarize the characters' feelings for us.

"Tarzan" is a pleasure to watch, full of excitement and fun, and not over-heavy on the sentiment. Say what you will about Disney's quality compared to years past; this one is a solid addition by any standards.

Grade: A-

Rated G

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