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DISNEY'S TARZAN
Film Review

David Bruce Bozarth


View the Disney Tarzan Web Site at http://www.tarzan.com


July 5th, 1999. We're just back from a vacation and decide to grab the evening matinee of Disney's Tarzan. The wife knows I am an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan and that this summer release from Disney has been a hot topic on my Edgar Rice Burroughs List (ERBList, an email list server dedicated to the life and works of Edgar Rice Burroughs). "Would you like to go?" she asks. Golly, yes!

"IT'S CUTE!" That was my wife's first comment after leaving the theater where we saw Disney's Tarzan with THX sound. My first thoughts after seeing this 87 minute animated film was "Great Disney!" These applauds stated, this latest full-length animation box office success from Disney is not Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes.

As an ERB scholar and long time fan of Tarzan and the other works by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) and as an equally long time fan of Disney's animated features, this will be a tough review to write. I'll start with the Disney side and finish with the Burroughs.

Kudos to Disney!

The animation gimmick which brightens the Disney studio's artistic vision of TARZAN is called "Deep Canvas"--and it is a corker. The many jungle scenes steal the show. The near realism of mountains, sky and water are as subtle and breathtaking as any Maxfield Parrish painting. The colors are subdued, yet have an inner luminosity that draws the eye. I found the effect very appealing. My wife, on the other hand, remarked that the "animation was good, but did not seem any better than other films I've seen." Perhaps the effect is too subtle?

The best scene in the film, more so because it is most exemplary of the Disney formula, was "Trashing the Camp." I wonder how many missed the cameo by Mrs. Potts and her offspring Chip? The score, sung and performed by Rosie O'Donnell and Phil Collins is a toe-tapper, and the high jinx and shennanigans remind us of similar great moments from Snow White to Beauty and the Beast.

I chuckled over the Rube Goldberg rescue of the infant Tarzan from the slashing claws of Sabor (Sheetah in the books) by Kala and also enjoyed the hilarious nod to Carmen Miranda as the young Tarzan speared a batch of fruit that decorated the crown of his reluctant ape father, Kerchak. The Swiss Family Robinson tree house brought back fond memories as well. I also liked that they worked in the Absent Minded Professor's extensive laboratory (shattered with a single smash for effect). The musical pots and pans reminded me of Sword In The Stone. It is a wonder to realize that the lead Disney animators are as old in memory as I am! The inner city chatter from the Terk character might wear thin in generations to come, but it had its moments.

I was equally tickled that the lantern-jawed, boorish, arrogant Evil Bad Guy found in the Disney formula worked so well as embodied in the character of Clayton, the safari leader. This hallmark villain of Disney animation features is the necessary springboard for audience loathing so that cheers for the hero may be that much sweeter. Clayton's single-mindedness during the education of Tarzan to learn the location of the gorillas reminds us of other successful Disney villains and their obsessive behaviors. And, in common with most Disney villains, the evil Clayton falls to his death (are there many Disney films where the villain does not fall to their death?), though the children in the audience are spared viewing the bad guy's demise.

The part of Kala, Tarzan's ape mother, is endearingly performed by Glenn Close. Kala's character is affectionately drawn and the sensitivity of Close's performance makes Tarzan's ape mother one of the best Disney moms to come down the pike. Kerchak, Kala's, mate is most impressive--truly a king of apes. Kerchak's voice, done by Lance Henrikson, at times startles us with an implication of ferocity unbound; yet, in the end, reveals to all that Kerchak's motivations were always for the good of the tribe (family).

The aspect of the Tarzan tale as told by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912 that Disney chose to portray on screen was the question of what constitutes a family. Is a family those who look like you, or those who love you with all their heart? The question is further complicated by Tarzan's discovery that he is different from his ape family-and doubly compounded when humans, Jane Porter, her father A. Q. Porter, and Clayton arrive in the jungle.

Jane Porter, voiced by Minnie Driver, is portrayed as a spunky if somewhat ditzy English girl who has come to Africa with her father in hopes of studying great apes. A typical Disney heroine with over large eyes, pert nose, and variable breast size (demure and sometimes not so demure), Jane encounters trouble with a gang of baboons and is rescued by Tarzan.

As the couple flee through the trees we are shown the second Disney gimmick, sure to please the youngsters of X-treme sports, in Tarzan. The animators wished to show how easily the Tarzan character moved through the trees so they looked to skateboarders and in-line skate stunters. Some of the sequences are stunning with their roller coaster viewpoints, and a few of the kiddies in the audience went "wow!" Tarzan made it look easy. I just hope none of the less bright kids in the audience attempt to hand-surf down a tree branch the way Tarzan does!

Ultimately, as in all Disney films, the principal characters learn the motivations of the Evil Bad Guy and do what each can to thwart the villain. In the process Tarzan must make a choice between the jungle and civilization, between family and Jane, between his heart and his head. This inner struggle is resolved when Tarzan is confronted by Clayton's treachery and uses every resource at his command to defend his ape family. We shed a tear as the mighty Kerchak dies and, at the same time, feel proud when Kerchak passes the leadership role to the son he belated recognizes.

Disney's Tarzan is, in my opinion, one of the best productions ever to come out of the Disney studios. It has every value necessary to be a great, entertaining, family feature. Additionally, the vibrant soundtrack by Phil Collins lifts this amazing visual treat and heartfelt story to a level that is near, if not equal to Disney's Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid.

Thumbs up!

Now, from an ERB fan's point of view:

Those who know me as an ERB scholar and fan of Tarzan will probably expect a scathing review, but I think they'll be a little disappointed. The tale Disney chose to tell is in the various Tarzan novels, though it is not totally found in Burroughs' original Tarzan of the Apes. Tarzan knew mother love from Kala, the mangani she-ape who reared him, but the more intricate and infinitely more believable aspects of life among the great apes was not scripted into the Disney production. This, I believe, is a wonderful opportunity lost.

I found the combining of names and characters in the Disney script to be unnecessary. We, the viewers, are cheated of the rich conflict that existed between Kerchak, Terkoz, Tublat and Tarzan. These trials of childhood as written by Burroughs produced exactly the same result as the Disney version without the sleight of hand mix of personalities and characters. Kala was Tarzan's sole comfort among the apes and, on the whole, that tale might have been more interesting than the forbidding "I ain't your daddy!" avoidance of the Disney Kerchak.

The Terk(ina) part of gal-pal chum (necessary in this day of political correctness and equal opportunity of gender and kid power in general) might have been inspired by a short in Jungle Tales of Tarzan though the central theme of that story was certainly too intense and adult for the young children targeted by the Disney studio. I found the Terk character grating as an ERB fan, and Mrs. Bozarth stated it was "Rosie all the way," but I do thoroughly understand the necessity of comic relief inclusion for the success of the Disney formula. In reality, however, the entire "Trashing the Camp" sequence could have been left out without affecting the film. As an ERB Tarzan fan I sincerely wish it had been left on the cutting room floor!

Tree surfing I cannot accept, visually interesting as it was to watch. No human and certainly no ape can travel through the trees in that manner. Where the film slavishly attempted to use realism in scene and content, the admittance of unbelievable locomotion was jarring. I'll not second guess the production crews at Disney for their decision to utilize this form of depiction, but I can say that I wasn't all that impressed.

Disney's Jane, poor girl, has a screw loose somewhere. I'd have preferred a blonde, as in the novel, and one who wasn't so cow-eyed, but all in all, it was not a bad portrayal. The affection between Tarzan and Jane was well done and follows the spirit of the ERB novel.

The assignment of Evil Bad Guy to Clayton diminishes a necessary character in the original novel; though William Clayton was weak and selfish and caused a lot of pain between Tarzan and Jane, he wasn't that bad a guy.

I'm not one of those who feels Disney was wrong to ignore the presence of black natives in the original novel, though I would have liked to seen them make the effort. The real Tarzan, a grim and rather uncheerful sort given to harsh practical jokes, might have appeared (I do not count the plucking of an elephant hair as a real Tarzan practical joke). I would have liked to see Kala die as in the novel.

Yet, for all the "I wants" I might have, here's a few thoughts to ponder as I close this review. My wife enjoys animation films, and likes more than a few of the previous Disney full-length features. She liked the way the Tarzan film looked. She asked only a few questions during the film (a sign she was watching!) though the questions indicated that even she, who has never read the story, found some of the characters a little difficult to understand. "Did Tarzan have an ape friend like Terk?" "Was Kerchak that malevolent?" (Based on the Disney father, mother, adopted son treatement.)

My wife said, "Nobody knows the real Tarzan. They will think what we just saw is Tarzan." Alas, that is true. Disney's prominence and marketing ability will surely change the way the famous ape-man is viewed throughout the world.

Later, as we drove home, a statement by Mrs. Bozarth may lift the hearts of ERB loyalists: "What I saw has made me interested in knowing more about the real Tarzan."

"Kewl!" I said. "If I give you a copy of the book will you read it?" Wide-eyed, breathless, I awaited her answer.

"I want to know how much of that animation was based on the facts of the book."

Waiting for an affirmative response to my previous question, I realized she would not read the book. Drats! Not even Disney can convince my wife to read any of the works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and she at least understands and supports my ERB madness! If Disney's Tarzan could not convince her to read Tarzan of the Apes, will it convince any of the movie viewers to seek out the original and be as astounded and amazed as I have been the last 39 years?

One can only hope!