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(US 1999) Rated G
*** 1/2 Stars

Starring (voices):
Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Glenn Close, Lance Henriksen, Nigel Hawthorne, Brian Blessed

Directed by Chris Buck, Kevin Lima

Writing credits: Edgar Rice Burroughs (story), Tab Murphy

Disney * 88 minutes

Upon walking out of the theatre after seeing TARZAN with a friend and her two young relatives, I was reminded of Mia Farrow's character in PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, describing her just-walked-off-the-screen new beau, as I remarked, "I've just seen the greatest guy...of course he's a toon, but you can't have everything."

Sorry, Mr. DiCaprio, there's a new hunk in town, and his name is Tarzan. Of course, he's a toon, but....oh, never mind. But the Disney studio's latest protagonist appears to be causing enough male angst to generate an op-ed piece in the June 22nd New York Times by a man who claims that Tarzan's exaggerated musculature is causing unrealistic expectations in boys as to their physiques.

Uh, excuse me, sir, but have you ever heard of Barbie? Now you know what girls have dealt with for forty years.

Move over, Mr. Powers, for THIS guy, not you, is the guy in the summer of 1999 who put the "grrrr" in "swinger".

The aforementioned Tarzan in this current incarnation isn't much different from the one we know from Edgar Rice Burroughs' original novel and hundreds of movies with various degrees of immortality. The orphaned infant son of shipwrecked parents, who have been killed by a leopard, he is rescued by a gorilla and raised as one of their own. Confronted with a female of his own species, he is forced to confront and choose the nature of his own identity.

This is the first Disney theatrical feature I've seen since THE LION KING, and a worthy successor it is, too. The best Disney efforts combine breathtaking state-of-the-art animation techniques, interesting characterizations, a plot that is heartwarming without being maudlin, a funny sidekick that fits the plot without being intrusive, and songs that add to the plot without blatantly appearing to be tailor made for figure skating programs. TARZAN succeeds brilliantly on all counts, with backgrounds that literally take one's breath away in their detail and dimensionality.

Disney animated features do have this peculiar tendency to contain themes and incidents that are perhaps a tad too intense for their intended audience, and TARZAN is no exception. Disney protagonists are often orphans, and the scene of gorilla Kala (voiced softly and maternally by Glenn Close) attempting to rescue her baby after the latter is snatched by a leopard, was upsetting to ME (I can't speak for my young companions). I found the scene in which Kala finds the infant Tarzan amidst the bloodstains of his dead parents also somewhat intense for children, though children in the age of the Columbine massacre are probably immune to such images. Kala's Tim Allen-like grunts, which add an incongruous, if unintentional comic note, are more than offset by the extraordinary effort put into her expressive eyes. Indeed, the eyes of all of the main characters are exaggerated in the style of Japanese animation, the result being a greater ability to convey a wider range of emotion than ordinary ink-and-paint creations.

As the young Tarzan grows, his "outsider" status is emphasized, both within the gorilla "tribe" and within his own family. Kerchak, the group's patriarch (voiced by creepy ALIENS droid Lance Henriksen), is the archetypal demanding father figure for whom nothing Tarzan does is quite good enough. In real life, Tarzan would either become hopelessly neurotic in his quest to please a father who refused to be pleased, or become a rebel, careening from one self-destructive act to another. But this being a Disney film, Tarzan grows up strong, brave, true, and improbably well-sculpted, sporting some really natty dreads and eyes that veer from puppylike earnestness to a smolder reminiscent of Christopher Lambert in the dreadful 1984 Tarzan film GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN.

Yes, folks, Tarzan is probably the hottest hunk Disney has ever produced out of ink and paint, and he and Jane (spunkily voiced by Minnie Driver) generate some real heat, with the most erotic glove-removal scene since THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.

The worst feature of even the best Disney efforts are the relentlessly sappy songs, doomed to immortality in DISNEY ON ICE. The clever lyrics of the late Howard Ashman in films such as ALADDIN mitigated the saccharine a bit. Since then, dreckmeisters such as Tim Rice and Elton John have slopped on the sugar. This time, Phil Collins contributes the musical interludes. As perhaps the least objectionable of these pop legends, Phil Collins has at least the redeeming feature of being a drummer, which is an asset in a film at least marginally placed in Africa. The songs are less intrusive than usual, and a song-and-dance number in which the gorillas (led by Terk, an androgynous, but marginally female, young gorilla voiced by Rosie O'Donnell in a thespian stretch of her talents as, well, Rosie O'Donnell) and friends trash a safari camp is ingeniously clever, and right out of the road company of STOMP.

TARZAN is that most rare of gems -- a film that everyone can enjoy. Young children will enjoy the colors and songs, older children will enjoy Tarzan's skateboard-like surf-swings, female teens will be captivated by the love story, and adults will be taken in by the whole package, which once again proves that family entertainment need not be insufferable.

TARZAN official site

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti except where indicated as copyright of the author. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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