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Tarzan in Zero Gravity

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 1999

  Movie Critic


'Tarzan'
Tarzan confronts a bloodthirsty leopard in Disney's beautifully animated adventure. (Disney)

Directors:
Chris Buck and Kevin Lima
Voices:
Tony Goldwyn;
Minnie Driver;
Rosie O'Donnell;
Glenn Close;
Wayne Knight;
Alex D. Linz;
Nigel Hawthorne;
Brian Blessed;
Lance Henriksen
Running Time:
1 hour, 28 minutes
G
Parents should be warned of an intense man-leopard fight ending in a bloodless death
He's flying.

Look at him way up high and suddenly there he is, flying. He can soar, he can weave and what's more, he's not even trying.

This is . . . Tarzan?

Yes it is, at least according to the new animated Disney take on Edgar Rice Burroughs's fabled character. The film sees the ape man more as the Peter Pan of a never-never land (never existed, never will) than as a chest-beating avatar of white superiority. He's no avatar, he's an aviator. This Tarz is a magical sprite who zips through the ether with the grace of the Red Baron in defiance of that nasty reality called gravity; he sprinkles the fairy dust of eternal innocence.

The movie is great fun if weightless as its central character and denuded of ideas. To save consideration of the awkward issues threaded into the DNA of Burroughs's concoction – colonialism and racism, for example – the movie simply eliminates all native peoples from its universe. This does simplify things, and leaves plenty of room for delight rather than tragic reflection. And it opens up other possibilities; think how much trouble could be avoided in a "Lawrence of Arabia" without those pesky Arabs, or "An American in Paris" without those rude Frenchies.

Still, the delight – chiefly the delight of pure bravado execution – is considerable. Animation is so evolved as both an art and a technological process, particularly as the old-style imagination for character grace and nuance is seamlessly meshed with new-style computer concepts so brilliant as to be mind-boggling, that the whole thing dazzles.

In the best sequences, Tarzan uses vines for lift, but once he gets into the arboreal highway he uses the sheer power of self-belief for propulsion and negotiates from vine to vine and limb to limb with aerobatic smoothness. I believe he even does an Immelmann turn. Or, now and then, the skies turn metaphorically to seas and he becomes a surfer-dude riding a green, chlorophyll-filled forest canopy conceived as vast pipelines for him to veer this way and that. Hard on the feet? Well, not if you're animated. At such moments, "Tarzan" produces almost giddy pleasure, the cutting so quick and vital and rhythmic it takes years and pounds off you. I suppose if you're under 6, you return to a fetal state.

The movie that sets up and fills space between these brilliant sequences is possibly not quite up to those standards but far from stupid. It begins with a story of origins, following as the baby Brit marooned on the African coastline (or possibly the coastline of an artificial islet somewhere in the greater Orlando area) is then orphaned by a leopard and saved from death by a mother ape, herself mourning over a lost child. (Yes, there is death in this world; later, Tarz gets even with the big cat with a most unapelike tool called a shiv.) Thus he's raised by the big apes – Glenn Close and Lance Henriksen are the majestic if somewhat one-dimensional parents. And who does he grow up to be? Someone hulking and brutish? Not these days, kids.

He grows up to be lithe and quick rather than densely muscled and powerful, though his calves and wrists (perpetually hanging downward as he necessarily apes the apes), accumulate all the fast-twitch muscle fiber. Somehow, he ends up with – this must be breeding – Lord Byron's magnificently chiseled profile, and, again because it's a cartoon, he stays untouched by dirt, mud, greasy hair or halitosis. His voice is read with sensitive anguish rather than bull-moose intractability by Tony Goldwyn (most famously, the bad guy in "Ghost").

Dignity turns out to be the hallmark of ape culture, which is portrayed with the gravity of a rabbinical college. The family issues are familiar: as a hairless one, the boy can never impress father Kerchak while being adored by mama Kala. The Disney people do stoop to vulgarity in their trademark "comic sidekick" routine, with the strident Long Island blasts of no less a mini-Merman (or, since Merman was small and she is big, perhaps that should be maxi-Merman) than Rosie O'Donnell as Terk, Tarz's best pal. A mistake, I think.

The movie ceases to be ethnography and becomes a story when the girl arrives. This is Jane Porter, daughter of Professor Porter. The two of them have come to study the apes, not on a safari (can't have a safari without native gun bearers and there are no natives, remember?) but under the stewardship of a white hunter type named Clayton who looks like Basil Rathbone on androstenedione. The character animation, by the way, is superb; look particularly at the elegant yet expressive simplicity of Jane's face, and the magic of the lines that give it such life, the entire illusion richly amped by a charming Minnie Driver reading the lines in a wondrous Victorian virgin titter.

The rest? Chutes and ladders, near-misses, fall-down-go-booms, a few mild musical numbers behind the mild voice and music of Phil Collins. The dilemmas are equally mild: Will Tarzan return to England or stay with the apes? Will the wicked hunter capture the apes? Will Tarzan get to first base with Jane? All are easily solved – that is, if you can be persuaded that an elephant could shinny up a rope.

This Tarzan doesn't bellow, he kvetches; he doesn't dominate, he persuades; he doesn't rule, he seeks consensus. He isn't the king of the apes, he's a citizen of the animal planet.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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