Tarzan (1999)

D: Chris Buck, Kevin Lima
S: Voices of: Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver

Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic character is given the Disney treatment in this stunningly animated and beautifully crafted film. Evocative art direction and character design, excellent vocal casting and a lower than usual quota of intrusive comedy relief makes it a near classic and represents Disney near its best. Alas, as ever, the demands of the international box office and the 'family film' colour the script, and the finale fails to follow through with the dramatic possibilities on offer, opting for a cheerful resolution which ensures children don't leave the theatre in tears and don't think too deeply about the logic of it. This is a pity, because like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, there are sequences of great power, and the film raises a number of interesting thematic questions. All are eventually abandoned in favour of the happy grin of the feel good movie, proving once again that though technical excellence and even emotional reach are not beyond Disney, courage is.

The opening few minutes are stunning, relating the story of the infant Tarzan's traumatic arrival on the shores of Africa and his adoption by a female gorilla. Thematically, the cross-cutting between sequences of the human and gorilla families raising their young establish one of the film's key points: that their worlds are not that far apart. Visually, the animators excel in evoking the angry storm which wrecks the human ship, and establish the jungle palette in which the majority of subsequent events take place. Narratively, the sequences are beautifully judged. There is no dialogue to skew the tone and key events are portrayed through reaction and suggestion rather than explicit action. The only false note is Phil Collins' anachronistic pop song (destined for the usual 'sing-along' videos, no doubt).

When the dialogue does begin, it is buoyed by the performances of Glenn Close and Lance Henriksen as the 'mother' and 'father' to be, and though Rosie O'Donnell establishes her presence as the 'comic relief' to be, it sets things in motion. All of the voices are marvellous, with Brian Blessed making a splendid villain (a conceited white hunter with ulterior motives in escorting Jane and her father on their fateful expedition), Minnie Driver a mercifully non-90s heroine and Nigel Hawthorne an endearing elderly professor. As Tarzan, Tony Goldwyn has a suitably rich voice too, but he is lucky that the animators give him so much fluidity and physical presence in the face of such vocal heavyweights. For the most part, the dialogue is much as expected, and there are few surprises in the script (and plenty of equally predictable omissions). The actors make the most of it though, and none of them attempts to steal the movie.

On the whole the film succeeds as a dramatic elaboration upon themes of racial intolerance, with the animal kingdom providing both a metaphorical springboard and an opportunity for some environmentalism. Tarzan is faced with the usual dilemma of deciding to what world he belongs, and there are echoes of the last serious interpretation of the character (leaving aside the TV series and, of course, George of the Jungle) in Greystoke, not least of all in the anatomical design and hairstyle of the character. The story seems headed in the same direction also, but rather than pursue the 'Tarzan in New York/London/Paris' thread, the film arrives abruptly at a somewhat unsatisfactory and contrived climax which tosses even the internal logic of the physical world of the film out the window (an elephant climbs onto a ship, a troop of Baboons who have been enemies suddenly become friends, etc). It is animation, of course, and anthropomorphism is hardly conducive to realism, but the animators have put the usual Disney time and research into ensuring the movements of the gorillas and the dynamics of their family group are authentic. The same applies to Tarzan himself, who is superbly animated, with psuedo-realistic physics despite all the running, swinging, leaping and skating he does. But just as dramatic complexity is reduced to simplistic 'good guys and bad guys' action and tricky questions about Tarzan's friendship with the female gorilla played by O'Donnell are sidestepped with the inclusion of Jane, the internal logic collapses in the name of looney tunes shenanigans to provide a frantic climax which does not generate much genuine tension.

Kids will love it, of course, and adults will be thankful that the saccharine levels are low. It is also among the most visually beautiful films Disney have made in the last few years, and not just in the big spectacle scenes as in Mulan, which alone makes it worth seeing. It is just that bit disappointing to watch the credits roll knowing that the bogus narrative resolution provided by the coda is probably the only way Disney will ever end a film, and that all the expertise, excellence and artistry that it is capable of financing and co-ordinating will never again reach the levels of Bambi in terms of pulling no punches.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes in two versions. The 2 disc special edition is obviously the better package, although the single disc also comes with additional features. It is such a spectacular film that the extra features are really well worth your time if you're interested in the craft behind the scenes. Kids will also benefit from some read-along features designed for their entertainment.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.