It was only a matter of time before The House Of Mouse opted to take on the mythical might of Edgar Rice Burroughs's enduring eco-hero epic, Tarzan The Ape Man, and when it finally swung out of that exquisite Deep Canvas jungle back in 1999 it was certainly worth the wait. Although saddled with a soundtrack by Phil Collins, the re-telling of the Tarzan's exploits proved immensely popular and topped the box-office charts on both sides of the Atlantic, spawning a fabulous - though horrifically overpriced - double disc release that truly captured the magic of Disney's wondrous animation. So, re-released now with a more pocket-friendly price-tag, is this new incarnation an improvement over the original or should you just dust down that first one and give it a spin instead?“I'm going to be his mother now ...”
Opening with a fantastic sequence that sees Tarzan's mother and father, babe in arms, making a frantic escape from a burning ship and then constructing an incredible tree-house on their new jungle hideaway, whilst Kerchak's troop of gorillas encounter their own tragedy not too far away, Disney's Tarzan immediately paints a boldly vivid and atmospheric scene-setter that is as emotional as it is dynamic. In the space of five or six minutes we have two stories and two cultures clashing, brought together in bereavement and forging a bond that will alter the lives of all concerned forever. With an economy of storytelling that could teach some of Hollywood's biggest scribes a thing or two, we see the orphaned Tarzan delivered into the loving arms of adoptive ape mother Kala in compensation for the loss of her own baby and much to the dismay of her mate, the imposing and proud Kerchak. Thus begins his bizarre journey to manhood, mimicking the abilities and characteristics of his gorilla brethren, all the while knowing of, yet never understanding the immense differences between himself and his new family. These concerns will inevitably become much more complicated when more humans arrive in their jungle idyll, especially the lovely Jane Porter, for whom Tarzan will discover even more primal emotions stirring.
“Tell me I'm not looking at the hairless wonder.”
Of course, alongside the delicious new interest of a young lady comes the threat from gun-toting uber-cad Clayton and the attentions of Jane's own scientific boffin father. The seeds of paradise, inevitably, will become tainted by so-called civilisation, yet in the capable hands of writers Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White (and, of course, Burroughs, himself) the tale never feels preachy and Disney's patented moral standards for family, loyalty and good triumphing over evil never overtly interfere with the damn good thrill ride that resides at the core of the story. Emotions may run high but Tarzan is far less manipulative than most of Uncle Walt's output. The apes may be loving, playful and indeed gentle for a lot of the time but we are never allowed to forget that they can be ferocious beasts as well, typified by Kerchak's often terrifying grimace and chest-beating. The jungle itself is at once a place of heavenly beauty and tranquillity but death is only ever a tail-flick away. Witness the fearsome and relentless attack of the baboon army for evidence of this. As for the pivotal leopard skirmishes that bookend the proceedings, the inherent savagery of the place proves to be essential for survival. It sure is an intoxicating environment, but a spectacularly dangerous one, just the same. Walking the streets of society back home with Tarzan by your side may invite trouble but, all things considered, I think I'd put my money and my trust on the ape-man.
“It's no gorilla ...”
The animation, augmented very successfully with CGI, is nothing short of scintillating. The Deep Canvas process utilised throughout puts you right in the heart of the jungle with amazingly fluid camerawork whisking you through the foliage beside Tarzan during some helter-skelter, breakneck action set-pieces. With one chaotic vine-swing after another, a death-defying plunge from the roof of the world here, a violent tussle with a toothy beast there and a jaw-dropping hop, skip and jump over, under and along every conceivable surface this was a movie that simply had to push the adrenaline level sky-high and do it convincingly. This it does and it does so in spades. Tarzan's acrobatics are breath-snatchingly delivered, making this one of the most gorgeous-looking action films ever made. The jungle itself feels alive and, although falling way short of the realism captured by the island in Pixar's The Incredibles, retains a stylised, almost surreal depiction that works like a drug for the eyes. Shadow, depth and detail are so majestically captured that you long to reach into the screen, snatch a vine and go tree-surfing, yourself. But I still find it somewhat strange in these later Disney pictures how so much attention is paid to the backgrounds whilst the main characters are still somewhat bereft of features, themselves. This is just a personal thing with me but, especially with this movie, I find it a little distracting that the people, creatures or animals - as fabulously colourful and characterised as they are - still stand out amid the gloriously crafted settings as well ... simply cartoons. Never more so is this evidenced than in the sequence when Tarzan's street - or should that be jungle- smart pal Terk and her crew push through some terrifically rendered leaves and bushes to blunder into the human camp. It looks curiously similar to the more obvious splicing of Space Jam or Roger Rabbit. As I say, this is just my personal feeling, but this marriage of the sublime and highly detailed to the big, bold and far-less detailed just doesn't sit right. However, Disney still knows how to etch an expression and the one on Tarzan-boy's face when he is forced to do the splits when catching Jane is priceless. Also, check out the little details like the friction burning of Tarzan's hand on a vine or the dissolve from the evening sun to the smouldering hunger in the leopard's eye. Despite my own personal nit-pickings, Tarzan remains an animation milestone with its vaguely anime shadings and dynamic action blended with such a fantastically realised backdrop.
“Oh, shall I leave you and the blackboard alone for a moment?”
The voice cast work wonders too, really bringing the characters to life. Tony Goldwyn supplies much gravitas to the adult Tarzan with a multi-layered and mellifluous voice, while Lance Henriksen's gruff growl is perfectly suited for noble beast Kerchak. However, the real plus here is the inclusion of bellowing lung-champion Brian (Gordon's alive!) Blessed as the devious hunter Clayton. God, I love this guy. With his immense stature and deep, booming voice you would be forgiven for thinking he'd be the perfect choice for Kerchak but he manages to twist a few sly syllables here and there to affect a deliciously arrogant antagonist. Rounding out the tonsils-for-hire are Minnie Driver's haughty Jane and the marvellously soothing voice of Glenn Close as Kala. But, in the audio stakes, this movie is most remembered for one name and one that strikes terror in many peoples' hearts. That Disney selected the whining voice of Phil Collins to bleat out the songs for Tarzan I initially found disturbing. I'm not a fan - I don't know anyone that is, for that matter - but I have to admit that I actually like the songs he has supplied here. They fit the story without stamping too much authority upon it. “You'll be in my heart” perfectly captures the mood of the piece and “Son Of Man” actually plays brilliantly alongside the Tarzan-comes-of-age montage. In fact, this is my favourite sequence in the whole movie, aided immeasurably by Mr. Collins, himself. Confession time, folks - I even bought the soundtrack for this one song.
A great film, then and a true feast for the senses.