An immortal legend. As you’ve only imagined.
Disney finally gets it right. And boy, what a movie with which to get it right.
I have been disappointed with Disney for several years now. Their animation resurgence that began with The Little Mermaid produced several movies I loved — Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Then came the slump when all they seemed to make was derivative, formulaic, unappealing animated features. What made this slump even more pronounced was the release of two highly original and charming animated features (albeit computer animated features) during that time by Disney subsidiary Pixar: Toy Story and A Bug’s Life.
It wasn’t until the 1999 release of Tarzan that a Disney animated feature really appealed to me. But alas, I was too busy seeing The Matrix to bother with cartoons at the box office. It wasn’t until the DVD announcement that I decided I had to see it. I pre-ordered it sight unseen, based almost solely on the snippets I had already seen and the strength of Roger Ebert’s review (linked at right).
The basis of Disney’s adaptation of this modern classic should be familiar to all. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan adventure was published in 1912, and the character has been seen in countless movies. In this version, Tarzan’s human parents are stranded in Africa after a shipwreck. They establish a primitive life for themselves and their child, but a leopard kills his parents. A kindly ape named Kala rescues the human baby. She adopts it as her own child against the wishes of her mate and pack leader, Kerchack. Young Tarzan grows up among the apes, but is always keenly aware that he is different.
It is not until he is grown that Tarzan meets other humans. Professor Porter and his daughter Jane come seeking to study the apes. The trigger-happy Clayton, who is obviously not a nature-lover, leads them. Tarzan meets the strangers when he must save Jane from a pack of angry baboons. Despite the warnings of Kerchack, Tarzan is drawn to the creatures he knows are his own kind. He must choose between his loyalty to his family and his desire to please Jane, who wants nothing more than to see the enigmatic apes.
Aurally and visually, Tarzan is nothing short of breathtaking. Even on my paltry 20″ television, I was drawn into the movie in a way that few other movies — animated or live-action — could affect me. I am not a big Phil Collins fan (I group him with artists who used to be cool, like Elton John and Peter Gabriel), but his songs tap into the emotional core of this movie and significantly add to the experience. Unlike most of the take-’em-or-leave-’em songs of other Disney fare, these songs are integral to the movie. Also unlike the songs in other Disney movies, the characters do not sing them (A singing Tarzan? Thank you, Disney, for NOT going that route!). Much has been said about Disney’s advancements in computer-assisted animation, so I won’t go into the technical details. Suffice it to say that few, if any, animated movies have seemed so realistic or so fluid. My mouth was agape during much of the movie, and I had to watch the last couple minutes of animation several times because I could not believe what I had just seen.
Tarzan brought together an excellent group of actors for the voice talent. The adult Tarzan was voiced by Tony Goldwyn, known best for his role as Patrick Swayze’s treacherous friend in Ghost. Minnie Driver’s natural British accent was perfectly suited for the proper yet adventurous Jane. Driver has appeared in films such as Grosse Point Blank, Good Will Hunting, and An Ideal Husband. Lance Henriksen voiced the wise leader of the apes, Kerchack. Henriksen is among my favorite character actors, having appeared in Aliens and The Quick And The Dead (my favorite Western). Glenn Close is underused as Tarzan’s adoptive ape mother, Kala. Fatal Attraction and Reversal of Fortune are among her most notable roles. Also appearing are Wayne Knight (Jurassic Park, Seinfeld), Brian Blessed (The Phantom Menace, BBC’s Black Adder), and Nigel Hawthorne (Gandhi, Amistad). The only bad note in the entire movie is the casting of Rosie O’Donnell as Tarzan’s friend Terk. Every time her character opened her mouth, it jarred me out of the movie’s spell. A wisecracking ape who sounds like she’s from Brooklyn just seemed so out of place. But then, I’ll bet the character tested well with the eight and under crowd.
Like I said at the beginning, Disney finally did a movie justice with their DVD release. If the rest of their animated titles are released in this fashion, Disney will earn a deserved 180-degree turnaround in esteem among DVD collectors. The movie is presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. Yes, you read that right. It’s an anamorphic transfer, and it’s pristine, mint quality, perfect, a twelve on a one to ten scale. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.0 (more on the audio in the Rebuttal Witness section). There isn’t a separate LFE channel, but from what I understand that’s how the movie was released theatrically. This disc ranks right up with The Fifth Element and Saving Private Ryan in terms of enveloping surround mixes. It puts you right in the middle of the action, and separates the score amongst all the front and rear channels. While the rear channels are used extensively, I did not notice any showy, sweeping rotate-the-sound-around-the room effects. A moot point, to be sure.
Finally, Disney did not skimp on the extras. There’s a music video, a behind-the-scenes look at Phil Collins’ recording sessions, an interactive read-along (with and without narration), a trivia game, the theatrical trailer, and a sneak peek at Dinosaur, Disney’s summer 2000 release. The trailer, unfortunately, is full-frame, but it does have 5.1 audio. I am sure that I will watch the Dinosaur trailer over and over. It was attached to prints of Toy Story 2. I saw that movie twice, both times in crowded theatres, and each time there was a hushed awe while this five-minute trailer played.
Several other DVD websites have made quite a big deal about supposed problems with the audio mix on the Tarzan disc. I have a Dolby Digital setup in an average-sized living room, and listen to most movies at a moderate volume suitable for apartment living. For what it’s worth, my discerning ear noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Disney is working on releasing a corrected version of the disc. I purchased my copy from Reel.com. I spoke with one of their online customer service representatives. He said that they are aware of the problem, and are taking returns on the disc and will replace them with the corrected version when it is released. I’m sure most other online and brick-and-mortar retailers have similar policies, but check with them prior to purchasing the disc or returning the copy you already have.
When Disney announced that this title would be released, they also stated that a collector’s edition would be released in April. In addition (presumably) to the extras included in the “bare-bones” edition, it will have a commentary track and a second disc full of behind-the-scenes content. It will retail for $49.99 compared to $34.99 for the regular edition. If you want the extra content, by all means wait, but you won’t be disappointed with the version already released.
While I completely enjoyed Tarzan, I would have qualifications about showing it to younger, easily frightened children. I’m not an overly conservative guy; I just want parents out there to know the content so they can judge the effect it will have on their children. Only its bloodless nature garnered it a G rating rather than PG. It’s not a lighthearted romp like many of Disney’s other animated movies. While it is fun, it has several serious moments and dark undertones. Young kids might question how Tarzan’s parents died, or be frightened when the grown-up Tarzan is attacked by a leopard (and subsequently kills it), or when Tarzan is shot by Clayton and then goes toe-to-toe with the villain in a frenetic treetop battle.
Young and old alike will enjoy Tarzan. Supposed audio problems or not, it is a reference-quality disc. It’s well worth adding to your collection, unless of course you want to wait two months for the collector’s edition. I prefer instant gratification, and Disney delivered the goods to make my lack of patience not work against me.
I’ve strongly disliked Disney’s direct-to-video sequels in the past. As the movie ended, I thought to myself that Tarzan deserved a theatrical sequel of equal or greater quality. It ends in such a way that it begs to be continued. Besides, I want to see more of Jane in her fetching jungle outfit.