Disney has been somewhat in a slump the last few years with their films. They abandoned their traditional format of using fairy tales for their primary animated fodder after the Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast, and the result has been a series of hits and misses, from the botched Pocahontas to the hilarious Aladdin.
When Disney works from novels, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Woman Warrior (a book by Maxine Hong Kingston and the inspiration for Mulan), the filmmakers have to try and stuff the story into two hours. When they work from a fairy tale, they usually have to spread it out–and that’s where the room for their classic songs come from. What’s more, the songs make more sense in the fairy tale setting, whereas Victor Hugo certainly didn’t write any songs for The Hunchback (at least, not to my knowledge).
Tarzan is a film that is true to the Disney formula with the fun and adventure that was lacking Hunchback and Pocahontas. Phil Collins’ soundtrack is refreshingly subdued, and except for one clever and entertaining song (“Trash the Camp”), not a single note issues from the characters’ mouths.
Actually, there’s a distinct lack of dialogue in much of this film – but that’s not a bad thing necessarily. Tarzan is a part of the natural world, and as such he often communicates through movement rather than his voice. But what movement! This is one of the most energetic Disney films I’ve ever seen. Tarzan slips, slides and swings through the forest with dynamics that would be nearly impossible to capture in live action. Finally, a Disney film with animation that rivals their Japanese counterparts.
The plot is familiar–indeed, it’s embedded in Western cultural tradition. A Victorian family is stranded on a desert island; the parents are killed by a panther, and the boy is raised in the wild by gorillas, who name him Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn).
The animated film succeeds in many areas all the previous live-action films could not. Tarzan’s gorilla parents, the loving Kala (Glenn Close) and the belligerent Kerchak (Lance Henriksen, an unusual choice for Disney) could never have the same personality and humanity in a live-action film without segueing into comedy (see George of the Jungle). Close and Henriksen succeed in giving their characters depth. Goldwyn’s Tarzan has a deep, resonant voice, the kind that easily attracts Jane, played by Minnie Driver.
All in all, Tarzan is a visual feast. The African jungle has never looked more gorgeous, or more interesting as it speeds by you as Tarzan slides from branch to branch. The story is fun, the characters are interesting, and the plot, while predictable, plays itself out to a satisfying end.