I went to Tarzan hoping to hate it. I am generally cynical about Disney movies, and I hoped I could pull a “Mr. Cranky.”
I still won’t say I liked Tarzan, but I liked parts of it, and on the whole I couldn’t really fault it, given the genre. But it never wowed me and won me over. I never felt sheepish for having doubted Disney, as I did with A Bug’s Life.
Plotwise, Tarzan is a fairly traditional retelling. A shipwrecked couple are killed and their infant son is adopted by gorillas. The boy grows up never knowing why he looks different from his friends, never knowing about human beings.
One day, after Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn) has grown, he hears a loud bang in the distance. It is a party of people. A ridiculous-looking naturalist (Nigel Hawthorne), his daughter Jane (Minnie Driver), and their trophy-hunting bodyguard Clayton (Brian Blessed) are looking for gorillas.
After their first encounter, Tarzan and Jane start hanging around together (ouch, sorry). Meanwhile, the goofy professor Porter and the slippery villain try to get Tarzan to say where the gorilla nesting site is, the prof so he can study them, the bodyguard so he can cage them and sell them.
As with other recent Disney cartoons, this one is a musical. Phil Collins belts out the pop hits over montages of Tarzan “skating” down tree branches. (The music is always over a montage because the cast members don’t perform their own songs. For example, Tarzan’s “mother” starts the first few bars of a lullaby, then Collins takes over the soundtrack and the visuals shift into MTV mode.) None of the songs are too saccharine, and there’s even one that’s fairly catchy — “Trashing the Camp.”
Another trademark of Disney cartoons is that they always manage to top themselves when it comes to technical innovation. First it was the spinning ballroom shot in Beauty and the Beast. Then it was the focus pulls on The Lion King. In Tarzan, the trick is “hand-held” camera.
Early in the film a leopard is chasing Tarzan’s adoptive mother. The scene happens very quickly anyway, and the “camera” hops around trying to follow the action as though the virtual camera operator had legs. (The same technique is repeated later in the movie.) So why create this effect? Because they can? Because it hasn’t been done before? To get film nerds like me to say “whoa”? Whatever the reason, it’s a neat gimmick, even if it’s gratuitous.
That brings me to a fairly big complaint about the movie. Because of the animators’ acute technophilia, Tarzan is stylistically incoherent. Technical innovation may be neat, but that alone shouldn’t be reason enough to include it in a movie.
The characters in Tarzan are all traditional-looking animated creatures. They could have been drawn for The Jungle Book forty years ago. But the setting they inhabit has become hyperrealistic. With computer-modeled jungles, rivers, sunlight and shadows, it has become hard to tell for sure where the cartoon ends and “reality” begins — until you change your focus to the cartoon apes in the foreground.
This inconsistency is a stylistic mistake. It keeps the audience from understanding and getting into the animated world. The characters and settings are animated separately, but they shouldn’t look that way. Even assuming there were a good reason to mix two such disparate styles, Professor Porter’s character introduces a third style that’s even further out of place.
Set in the “real” jungle, Tarzan was animated with sharp, heroic lines, as was Jane. Clayton’s figure was a bit more exaggerated, but as the villain, it was excusable. But professor Porter’s form was neither realistic nor heroic. He was so flat, round, silly, and, well, cartoonish, that he would have fit in better with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Each style might work on its own, but to ignore how they integrate is a mistake.
I have one more complaint, and to discuss it, I’ll have to give away the ending. (That’s okay, though. If you’re familiar with the Disney formula, you already know what the ending is.)
The kid-movie justice system is insane.
My sister said it best: her daughter was telling her about a movie that had a happy ending because the bad guy died at the end. Later, to me, my sister was incredulous. “It’s a happy ending because someone you don’t like is dead? What kind of message is that?”
Having observed this childish system of justice in movies ranging from Tarzan and A Bug’s Life (rated G) to Con Air and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (rated R), I’ve discovered a few other “rules.” The good guys never do their own dirty work. The bad guy always dies because of his fatal flaw, usually greed, rabid perseverance, and/or pure, inhuman evilness. The more gruesome, sudden, and irreversible the death, the better. The Greeks had deus ex machina endings. We have mortis ex formula endings.
Ideally, we’d be teaching our kids to outwit their oppressors, not to hope for luck to bring their deaths. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen very often in movies. (A noteworthy exception is last year’s “Ever After,” which I strongly recommend.) No wonder we are a nation in love with the death penalty, where bad guys die without the rest of us getting blood on our hands.
Back to Tarzan, I’m probably being too hard on this movie, when my real complaint is with the formula. Still, I wouldn’t say I liked it, and I’d even go so far as to say that it doesn’t quite measure up to other Disney offerings. I’m sure those of you with younger kids would enjoy an afternoon at Tarzan. But the rest of us could probably skip it.