Disney's animators swing into action
Walt Disney Pictures
Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck
USA, 1999
When a new Disney animated feature comes out, half the reviews talk about the Disney formula. What many don't notice is that the reviews themselves use formulaic elements as well. To wit:

Voice actors: Tony Goldwyn is Tarzan; Minnie Driver is Jane; Glenn Close is Kala, Tarzan's gorilla mom; Rosie O'Donnell is Terk, Tarzan's gorilla-buddy; Lance Henriksen is Kerchak, the stern gorilla silverback. Henriksen and Close get top marks here; neither voice called attention to the celebrities behind the mike, and they delivered fine performances to boot. Henriksen in particular was powerful. We're so used to him muttering through most of Millennium that it's easy to forget he can deliver forceful performances when he's so inclined. He plays Kerchak with calm yet firm authority, and lends him the forcefulness he needs when someone challenges Kerchak's authority.

Story: Perhaps surprisingly, Disney's Tarzan is more faithful to Edgar Rice Burroughs' original stories, or at least what I remember of them. It's certainly more faithful than most other film and TV adaptations.

This latest rendition of Burroughs' most famous character, like all Disney heroes, spends most of the movie trying to figure out who he is. But it's nice to see that unlike most Disney protagonists since The Little Mermaid, he's confident in himself and his abilities for most of the movie. (Thank goodness. I don't think I could have endured Tarzan going through Hercules-like bumbling, or Aladdin's trying-to-be-what-I'm-not routine.)

Music and songs: True to form, Phil Collins is blandly serviceable as he warbles his two songs over the story of Tarzan's origin. Mark Mancina's musical score, on the other hand, is fabulous. Dramatic without being intrusive, the dual nature of the jungle—serene, yet dangerous—is nicely conveyed here.

What's most startling is the lack of Broadway-style show tunes. No, really. At no point does anyone burst into song, sparing us the plaintive "I want..." song that has been a staple for the last decade.

Animation: Briefly, it's stunning. In particular, Tarzan himself is an interesting case: he's a human raised as a gorilla, so the way he moves is very different from either. With one brief exception, the behavior is consistent, and he's a pleasure to watch throughout.

The other aspect that stands out is the marrying of 2D, cel-style animation, and 3D computer-generated imagery (CGI). While this is nothing new in principle, Tarzan pushes it further using a system called Deep Canvas. The effect is startling: "flat" characters move through 3D space without the stacked-cel look of multiplane, and the different elements of (seemingly) traditionally-painted backgrounds move convincingly as the camera tilts and pans. It's a remarkable technical achievement, but my initial reaction at the beginning of the movie was one of discomfort. Cel-style characters mix with textured backgrounds and foregrounds a little too easily; it's almost like a boundary has been subverted, and some of the flat stylization has been lost. The use of Deep Canvas didn't bother me as much during faster action scenes; in fact, I suspect its use there contributed to my perception of extremely dense foliage. Maybe I'll get used to it someday; right now, it seems a little creepy.

Viewability according to age group: Are you kidding me? If you have children, there's no way you're not going. If you're predisposed to seeing animation without kids, then you'll likely go, won't you? Next subject.

The big wrap-up, including a statement reflecting the state of modern feature animation: Without a doubt, Tarzan is the most intense and action-packed Disney feature cartoon to date. Off the top of my head, I can count six scenes featuring fight or flight, and the scene where the villain gets his (c'mon, you knew he was gonna) seethes with his malicious fury, making his somewhat grisly death—even by Disney standards—all the more wrenching. There's a lot of good work here, and the Disney crew should be proud.

Oddly enough, it's for just that reason that many animation fans—counting myself among them—will find Tarzan aggravating. After the stumbles of Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules, Disney seemed to be finding itself again with Mulan. In fact, they were slowly heading in the direction we'd been yearning for: slowly, ever so slowly, breaking away from the formula which had made their fortune earlier in the decade, but was now beginning to show signs of wear as they force-fit it onto every new project. Tarzan, too, pulls a bit farther away from the established Disney formula, as evidenced by the lack of show tunes, making for 88 minutes of pure story.

The problem is the lingering traces of that formula. As the studio pulls away from it, the formula's remnants stick out even more. For instance, there's a scene which is the equivalent of a show tune, though no one sings. The movie effectively screeches to a halt for this scene, and it contributes nothing to the film at all. The "young hero accidentally causes big disaster" scene is questionable; so, too, is the required "sidekicks rescue misguided hero" scene, made all the more problematic by a glaring impossibility we're supposed to just accept (you'll know it when you see it).

If Tarzan proves anything, it's that the Disney crews are getting more confident. Not in the big showy stuff, which they've proved time and again they can handle, but in the small details that pull everything together. With each film since Hunchback, they've shown they can do more subtle character animation, especially in facial expressions. Tarzan also makes good use of quiet moments, which few Western studios employ. They're learning that there can be a lot of power in pulling back, if only for a second.

Essentially what I and many other fans of the form would like to see is for the creative forces in the studio to cut loose and just make a film with a solid story and solid animation, setting aside the time-worn formula. Leave the sidekicks out unless they have a real purpose. Don't put in scenes that scream, "This is for the kids." Just tell us a good story. Movies like Tarzan remind us that they have the ability, and that they're breaking free of the shackles of the past. It's just that it's so gradual, so tentative, and so tantalizing, the wait is excruciating.

A Critical Eye exclusive (June 14, 1999)
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