When you're going to make the umpteenth movie about the second most recurring character ever to appear on the silver screen since film first ran through a camera -- for those wondering, the most popular is Dracula -- there had better be some good reasons. With Disney's release of "Tarzan," there are actually several, and while some may argue whether they're all good, this animated picture certainly is.
Commercialism aside, the most relevant artistic reason for bringing the Lord of the Jungle to the big screen for the 48th time (at least back in 1999 during the original theatrical release), especially in animated form, all leads back to Edgar Rice Burroughs. The early 20th century novelist and creator of Tarzan, Burroughs had never traveled to Africa when he wrote about Tarzan, but he envisioned him as a powerful, limber and agile ape-man.
In fact, in the 1930s Burroughs stated that animating his creation would more faithfully represent him on the screen, even going so far as to note that such an effort "must approximate Disney excellence." However, aside from the Tarzan-inspired cartoon "George of the Jungle" -- which Disney, of course, remade as a live action feature -- all of the actors playing him have been of the real, flesh and blood type, with some of them adding a certain woodenness to that mix.
As such, filmmakers were stuck with those performers' less than satisfying physical limitations in both playing an ape-man, and the manner in which he moved through the jungle, not to mention his interaction with the land's native creatures.
With an animated Tarzan, however, those limitations have been stricken. The hyper kinetic results are sure to delight the film's target audience and probably the parental units in tow. This Tarzan doesn't just swing from tree to tree, but instead "surfs" the jungle, sliding down and around trees like he's in an immense water slide park. He also performs stunts that not even the seemingly gravity-defying Jackie Chan could accomplish (although I'm sure he would try).
Tarzan also moves and behaves in more of an animal-like fashion than ever before. For example, we see him occasionally walk along on his knuckles or pick up fruit with his foot. Thus, he seems far more "realistic" than the often stiff performers who previously embodied the character over the years. The animation also allows for Tarzan to directly interact with the animal characters, again resulting in more realism than would be possible with real actors and animals (or people in monkey suits).
Utilizing an animation process they've named "Deep Canvas," the Disney animators also created the best and most "realistic" looking background for any of their features at the time of this film's original release. With the ability to move the camera in and around the background, co-directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck create a fun and lively experience within an incredible looking picture. The animated characters also look quite good, although they occasionally seem a bit flat when compared to the background in which they appear.
The screenplay -- courtesy of screenwriters Tab Murphy ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame") and Bob Tzudiker & Noni White (collaborators on "The Lion King") -- satisfactorily keeps things moving at a good clip, and offers both laughs and some touching moments.
For the most, it also follows the path of the traditional and well-known Burroughs story. As such, it seems at once pleasantly familiar but also somewhat new since the last, most "true" adaption was 1984's "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes."
There have been some alterations to the classic story, however, including the fact that Tarzan doesn't return to England in the story's third act and we never see any native African people. The biggest omission for fans of the previous films, though, is that Cheetah, the ape-man's chimp sidekick, is nowhere to be seen.
While the filmmakers -- and probably the head studio honchos -- may have omitted the character in favor of newer, comic relief characters -- after all, we already had the little monkey Abu from "Aladdin" and the rest of the apes here -- one has to wonder how much of the decision was based on art versus product tie-in commercialism. As a kid, I always enjoyed Cheetah in those old black and white Tarzan films, and would have liked to have seen him finally given a chance to speak after all these years.
The film, however, does stick with the obligatory animated feature elements. Thus, not only do we get the two sidekick characters (some of the more weakly developed ones in Disney history), but also the doe-eyed buxom heroine, the oversized and square jawed villain, the short and somewhat absentminded father figure and, of course, the orphaned youngster who grows up as something of an outsider.
All of that's obviously present to appease the kids through familiarity, but one has to wonder whether Disney's onto something and has discovered that those are actually universally accepted anthropological archetypes to which everyone subconsciously reacts.
There's also the now standard inclusion of soundtrack selling musical numbers, but this time around the filmmakers have made a surprising but completely appropriate diversion from the norm. Instead of the characters suddenly breaking into song like a Broadway musical and the countless film versions of them -- occurrences that are fun, but at the same time often quite hokey -- the music serves only as a complementary device. That's a wise decision because it's doubtful many viewers need or want to hear Tarzan as a crooner.
With just five songs by former Genesis singer/drummer Phil Collins (who also later had a successful career on his own), the music was some of the best from a Disney animated flick in years, and perfectly fits in with the scenes it accompanies.
Vocal delivery for the animated characters is solid across the board. While Tony Goldwyn doesn't resort to any wild theatrics in voicing the jungle man, his take on the character seems dead on. Minnie Driver is perfectly cast as the prim and proper, young Englishwoman and brings everything and more to her role.
The rest of the vocal talent, from Glenn Close nicely voicing the caring mother to Lance Henricksen doing his take on the solemn James Earl Jones- like father-figure, is good, although both Rosie O'Donnell and Wayne Knight (TV's "Seinfeld") don't really do enough with their sidekick characters to make them either very funny or memorable.
Although the film isn't quite up to par with Disney's best animated features, it's still quite good and certainly enjoyable. With enough thrilling, funny and even cute moments to keep kids of all ages entertained for its hour and a half duration, families certainly won't go wrong with this feature.