Austin Powers isn't the only swinger coming to town this summer. Disney's dazzling "Tarzan" is arriving Friday by way of Hollywood and vine.
It's a good thing, too, because it's a jungle out there. Civility has given way to road rage, kids killing kids, ethnic cleansing, Marilyn Manson and nose rings. No wonder RoboCop is rusted, Superman on hiatus and Batman brooding in the bat cave. Tarzan (voice by Tony Goldwyn), an innocent reared by a family of well-adjusted gorillas, is a joyful respite from the increasingly cynical action heroes of the millennium.
In the 48th screen adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure novels, Disney focuses on the loinclothed legend's relationships with his adoptive mother, Kala (voice by Glenn Close), his sidekick, Terk (voice by Rosie O'Donnell), and the rest of the primate family. Though life in the verdant African forest is paradise for the little orphaned lord, he struggles to fit in with the other gorillas.
When a story has been plowed over the way "Tarzan" has, it's always interesting to study how current culture shapes the theme and variations.
This time out, Disney animators are latching onto interest in saving the endangered mountain gorillas. The studio previously focused on humankind's hairy kin in the live-action features "George of the Jungle" and "Mighty Joe Young." Both movies portray the primates as superior, while their doltish human companions are easily manipulated into betraying their animal companions.
When Burroughs published "Tarzan of the Apes" in 1912, he had never been to Africa. His untamed jungle was inspired by travel guides, many of them undoubtedly written during the rise of European colonialism in the continent in the 19th century. Tarzan really belongs to that era. But if you think Disney is going to bring that up, think again.
In "Cinderella," the ugly stepsisters don't lop off their toes to fit into the glass slipper, as they do in the original folk tale. In "The Little Mermaid," the heroine does not die unacknowledged and unappreciated, as scripted by Hans Christian Andersen. And in "Tarzan," there's no racism, no materialism. There are, in fact, no Africans.
While earlier movie versions of the tale have included unflattering portrayals of native folk, here Burroughs's classic has been politically corrected to such an extent that no indigenous peoples appear on screen. When Professor Porter and his devoted daughter Jane (voice by Minnie Driver) enter the Disney jungle, they are led not by a native guide but a snooty white hunter, the kind of guy who killed Bambi's mother.
"We only have 80 minutes, so you have to decide what story you're going to tell," says the film's producer Bonnie Arnold. "In our version, Tarzan is in his early twenties and believes that he's an ape when he first meets Jane and her father. For that to work, Tarzan can't have come into contact with other people."
Though Tarzan's parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke, are eaten by a leopard, this takes place discreetly off screen. Directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck are quick to point out that no mothers actually die right in front of you. That, of course, is a breakthrough for the parent-slaughtering studio, especially when you consider that Kala dies in one of Burroughs's sequels. "We had to have Tarzan's yell, the loincloth and the elephant stampedes, but we wanted a story that hadn't been told in one of the 47 previous versions," Lima says.
Which led them to the gorillas. Tab Murphy, who wrote the first draft of the story, obviously drew on his experiences as a writer of the screenplay for "Gorillas in the Mist." The movie lavishes time upon the animals' gentle nature and the tenderness with which Kala cares for the orphaned aristocrat.
Buck, Lima and other members of the filmmaking team visited the lush gorilla preserves in Kenya and Uganda. Glen Keane, the veteran animator who drew Tarzan, remembers a thrilling, very scary encounter with a silver-back. To show the big male that he wasn't going to make trouble, he assumed a submissive pose, with his head to the ground and his butt in the air. "He gave me this look that was as clear as if he had said, 'Come on in. It's okay,' " Keane recalls.
When they began the project, Buck said, they asked themselves what animation could bring to the second most filmed subject in movie history that live action could not. They found the answers in Burroughs's overheated descriptions of the "feral god's" high-flying derring-do. Tarzan could spring 20 feet across the treetops or drop 20 feet in an instant, says Lima. "A human actor would be dead in a day if he tried this stuff."
But an animated actor needn't worry about springing his mortal coil. He's limited only by the animator's imagination. And Keane, a Disney superstar who drew Ariel, Pocahontas, Aladdin and the Beast, has allowed his to run riot.
Burroughs himself considered an animated Tarzan as a way of more faithfully bringing his hero to the screen. "The cartoon must be good. It must approximate Disney excellence," he wrote in a note to his son Jack in 1936.
Burroughs finally got his wish. Tarzan, with his bulgy muscles and darting eyes, certainly looks the part of a stealthy jungle king. But Keane, who used his son as a model, also gives the character the moves of a radical young skateboarder. And he's as ecologically aware as a granola eater. Burroughs died in 1950, and the site of his California ranch is now Tarzana, a suburb today, and there's something suburban, too, about this new "Tarzan."
Indeed, Disney's Tarzan may remind audiences of a guy from Tarzana, but his jungle home is a genuine Eden. Before the Fall, of course. Though born of man, the ape-reared jungle lord is born without sin. The books, written during the years that saw Teddy Roosevelt developing national parks and the Boy Scouts setting out to camp in them, were an immediate hit with folks nostalgic for the American Wilderness.
Though Burroughs's Tarzan is lord over the apes, in the film's modern view the apes are innately superior to the greedy, gun-wielding humans. As in "Instinct," in which primatologist Anthony Hopkins abandons humankind to live with the mountain gorillas, "Tarzan's" apes are gentle giants in harmony with nature. With parents like these, no wonder Tarzan grows up so pure . . . just like heroes used to be.
Tarzan may be a monkey's uncle, but he isn't a primitive thug like Conan, Rambo and other screen barbarians. He never so much as swipes a banana from Cheetah (perhaps because, mercifully, Cheetah isn't in the movie). By the end, we're convinced he's so blandly virtuous, he could run for president.
CAPTION: Disney's new Tarzan, the big screen's 48th, is too good to be human, an action hero without a violent streak.