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Movie review: Disney’s ‘Tarzan’

‘Tarzan’ swings to safety: Noble ape man sounds the call of the mild in Disney’s lush but declawed jungle story

June 18, 1999, Austin American-Statesman

Tarzan has no lips.

This quibble, minor as it sounds, grows alarming in the context of the ape man’s swollen physique, a rippling topography of abdominal foothills and pectoral mountains. There’s the python neck, the peninsula jaw, and then, dink, a bitty dash for a mouth, just like this:  — .

George W. Bush has bigger lips.

In “Tarzan,” a rollicking, perfectly enjoyable dose of Disney meringue, lips aren’t really the issue. I mean, the guy can barely speak. If his English were more sophisticated, perhaps Tarzan could answer the pressing questions, “How do you shave and why does a newborn dolphin have more body hair?”

Children, to whom the brisk, 88-minute movie stylishly caters, will have no time for such adult carping. They’ll be too busy whispering to each other, spilling their nachos and beseeching their parents to take them to the bathroom. Again.

That was the case at a recent Saturday morning preview of “Tarzan,” where the hundreds of children, tennis shoes dangling high above the floor, plunged into the heart-fluttering action, giggled loudly at the baby animals’ slapstick mischief, and really enjoyed their Nerds candies.

Based, of course, on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan of the Apes,” Disney’s sumptuously animated version is air-tight filmmaking couched in familiar icons, archetypal simplicity, bedazzling images, and sweeping music and humor. The result is market-tested craftsmanship, with child-proof caps concealing the acrid pills of adulthood. The gloriously implausible, let’s-all-jig-in-the jungle ending is vintage Disney hooey that betrays the source material just as it provides anxious moms and dads a parental reprieve.

I can’t think of one moment in this newfangled, defanged “Tarzan” that will exercise parents — there’s death but no blood — although the bleating pop tunes by Phil Collins might traumatize fragile children with discerning tastes.

Tarzan, thank goodness, does not sing, save for his tortured warble-yell, which owes more to Mariah Carey than I had ever imagined. (He does, however, sport a ratty loincloth and walks apelike on his knuckles — murder on his piano playing.) Most of the sundry jungle creatures forfeit singing duties, too. Collins’ airbrushed vocals swirl through the jungle. I kept thinking I’d spot the “hear no evil” monkey in a tree.

The exception is the jaunty “Trashin’ the Camp” sung by Rosie O’Donnell in her debut as a tolerable performer. O’Donnell plays puckish young ape Terk, endowing him with a Bronx bray and a streak of brattish brio. He sports a mohawk, the tonsorial emblem of rambunctious youth, and is a spritzer bottle of comic relief next to our humorless hero.

Disney’s direction-by-committee hits a new level of storytelling refinement. “Tarzan” rips along breathlessly, greased by a measured touch of wit (yet without the hip humor that floated much of “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” over kids’ heads) and visual ingenuity (rendered with traditional and computer animation) that exudes a wonderful 3-D sense of depth.

The masterly opening montage, showing how baby Tarzan goes from a moneyed family to a monkey family, is distilled perfection. And Disney has captured the excitement of the time-honored car chase in the way Tarzan surfs barefoot down and around vertiginous twists of branches. Lithe and swift, he’s like Nureyev on roller skates, swooshing through the jungle canopy, and we get the best, dizziest views. There’s also an unnerving elephant stampede that recalls the more epic sequence in “The Lion King.”

“Tarzan’s” themes are ennobling pabulum that find their place. The young man (ape?) has a major identity crisis. When his adopted gorilla “father” Kerchak (Lance Henriksen supplies the mellifluous rumble) intones, “He will never be one of us,” Tarzan asks his “mother” (Glenn Close), “Why am I so different?” The message is nothing the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” song doesn’t address more succinctly.

True to form, Disney enlists cliches when groping for emotional sting. For danger there’s a marauding leopard and a Hemingwayesque hunter brute. For love there’s prim, boring Jane (Minnie Driver), who is as likely to fall for the “flying man in a loincloth” (her words) as Fay Wray is for Kong. I also found problematic a shoddy rescue scene, in which an elephant swims out to sea and somehow scales the side of a ship to get aboard.

At this point during the preview, rows of kids and adults began streaming from the theater to snatch up free “Tarzan” posters and buttons. It seemed rude at the time, but in retrospect the behavior hews beautifully to the Disney way. The small stampede wasn’t dissing the movie. It was heeding the call of the wild.

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