Opus Eight:

1.  Tarzan: A Genuine Animated Cartoon At Last (9/8)

1. Tarzan: A Genuine Animated Cartoon At Last. With Tarzan, Disney restores the sheen on its reputation as the premier animation studio. My complaint for several of the most recent films is that the same story could be told live-action; so why make an animated film? The most notable offender in this regard is Beauty and the Beast, which was transformed into a Broadway theatrical production without visible effort. Demonstrably, we didn't need animation to tell the story Disney told in this production. An animated cartoon, it seems to me, should do things that can't be done in live-action film. Admittedly, since Lucasfilms, almost anything can be done in live-action through the machinations of special effects. Still, special effects are not, really, "live action": they're engineered action, and they transform a film into a species of animation. But that scarcely changes what I see as the over-arching function of animation: to tell a story in ways that live-action can't. And Disney's Tarzan does that with panache. The film has received raves on every hand, and I don't intend, here, to repeat any of those or to rehearse every dazzling aspect of the film. Instead, I'll mention just the things that impressed the hell out of me. At the top of the list, character design.
     Supervising animator Glen Keane avoided making Tarzan a bicep-bulging Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a canny inspiration. Keane's Tarzan radiates athleticism: he's broad-shouldered but otherwise pretty lean and sinewy--"muscled more like Apollo than Hercules," as Burroughs himself said; just the sort of build you'd expect to find with a man who swings through the jungle on vines. And Tarzan's visage--simply rendered--has a haunting intensity wholly appropriate but seldom seen in animated cartoon characters.
     Jane Porter is likewise an inspired creation. She is perky and cute, which turns out to be precisely the sort of thing that makes her work superbly as both a comedy character and the female romantic lead. For once, Disney managed to arrange a love story without getting bogged down in saccharine sentimentality. (There is sentimentality in this movie, but it doesn't slow down the production.) And the thing that rescues the romance from the overweening sweetness that usually clogs the works is Jane's design and personality--in short, her perfectly realized function as the film's comedienne.
     Of Jane's father, Professor Porter, the less said, the better. As a cartoon character design, he's a throw-back to another animation era, the thirties perhaps. His presence almost jars, but it is so quickly and repeatedly overwhelmed by the stylish designs everywhere else that we can easily forget him.
     Burroughs purists will also have to wink at certain changes the Disney elves have wrought in the story. Thematically, it's still about man's search for himself, his true self. But much of Burroughs' lumbering plot had to be abbreviated or thrown out altogether. Moreover, many of the traditional deaths take place so far off-camera that we become aware of them more by intellectual inference than by eye-witness. Still, the Disney team had the sense to realize that death permeates the Tarzan legend and that the tale can't be rehearsed again without some dying. The dying, however, is usually managed without apparent bloodshed. Tarzan kills a leopard, his gorilla father is killed by the white hunter Clayton, and Clayton himself, having been proved a thoroughly reprehensible sort, manages to cause his own death by hanging (a startlingly effective sequence, tastefully but not squeamishly handled). Despite the abbreviations and the omissions, the essential flavor of the legend is preserved--and, in some ways, enhanced.
     Another thing that is missing in this production is the customary Disney cute comedy character as a sidekick for the hero. That's odd, considering that the jungle offers a trove of possibilities. Most Hollywood versions of the Tarzan legend include a comedic chimpanzee, for instance. But there are scores of other candidates for the role, including any of hundreds of colorful birds. But there are no Jimminy Crickets here. True, one of Tarzan's gorilla chums is a sidekick of sorts; ditto Tantor the elephant. But neither quite fills the bill of slapstick comradeship. (Tarzan is essentially a loner, after all: that's his dilemma.) A tiny monkey shows up briefly, but he scarcely fulfills the usual simpering chimp slot.
     Some in the audience may regard this omission as a blessing. Certainly in recent years, the role, whenever it rears its head of spastic forced hilarity, has worn pretty thin. I'm undecided. I missed it here, but I'm not quite sure I would have welcomed another wild try at the part by a whirling Macaw, for instance.
     The Dark Horse comic book adaptation, by the way, does a credible job in translating all the movie into static panels, retaining both the visual character of the film and the storyline, nearly word-for-word (two issues, each $2.95). Too bad, though, that the pictures are so tiny. And what does this movie do that live-action can't do? First among other shimmering attainments, it achieves a credible vision of the Ape Man: until Tarzan starts walking erect towards the end of the movie, he walks like a gorilla--on his knuckles, hunched over, his legs doubled up under him like a frog's--and the plasticity of animation persuades us that it is possible for a man to move around like this. With remarkable agility, even. Moreover, animation shows us Tarzan jazzin' through the jungle, surfing the tree limbs and swinging on the vines. And it's all fast, fast, fast. According to report, Tarzan's creator, the legendary Burroughs, thought his creation could be brought to the screen successfully only as an animated character. And Disney proves him right.

return to top of page

Return to Archive Index
return to archive main page

To find out about Harv's books, click here.

send e-mail to R.C. Harvey
art of the comic book - art of the funnies - reviews - order form - main page