Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Disney Renaissance Part 10: Tarzan

And now we come to the final film of the Disney Renaissance. This movie is generally regarded as marking "the end" of that period in Disney animation history because the films that came afterward didn't quite match the streak of critical and commercial acclaim that Disney had enjoyed in the 90's. The studio strayed from the "adaptation with catchy musical numbers" formula during the following decade, with mixed results.

In many ways, this new trend started with the 1999 hit Tarzan, a movie that eschewed the standard song-and-dance numbers of movies like Hercules and Mulan. It still plays very much in Disney's wheelhouse, recaptured some of the magic that helped Aladdin to be so broadly appealing, and ended up being the studio's most successful film since The Lion King.

When you think about it, it's kind of amazing that it took more than 80 years for a full-length animated adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes to happen. Burroughs reportedly wrote to Disney himself about the possibility after seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was a long time coming. The property had seen decades of film versions after its publication (some successful, others decidedly not), but 1999 took a surprisingly subversive approach to what had always been one of the ultimate while male empowerment fantasies.

Tarzan followed the pattern of its predecessors in pulling in-house talent in to direct, with veteran character designers/animators Chris Buck and Kevin Lima (who also directed A Goofy Movie) heading up the project. The film branched out somewhat with composer Mark Mancina (Bad Boys, Training Day) providing the percussion-heavy score and Phil Collins handling the film's songs. However, it could be argued that the biggest feather in this film's cap was animation legend Glen Keane, specifically because of his work on the character of Tarzan himself.

This film positively wallows in visual storytelling, specifically by way of montages accompanied by Collins' vocals, and it really works. The film's setting and characters are established with an opening that goes for the better part of 10 minutes without a single line of dialogue, effortlessly telling the audience everything they'll need to know for the actions of the main characters to resonate. It almost functions as a short film in its own right. After that, the movie dives right into a "coming of age/broken family/fitting in" narrative that intertwines beautifully with the introduction of Jane Porter and her father and their guide in the second act. The direction the story goes afterward will seem really familiar (especially to anyone who's seen 1994's The Jungle Book), but the film moves with constant narrative surety and visual splendor.

The former is best-exemplified in how Tarzan begins with the title character, not the as king of the jungle, but as the ultimate outcast. Tarzan is small and weak compared to his adopted gorilla family, spurned by his surrogate father (a powerful performance by Lance Henriksen here) and sheltered by his adopted mother (Glen Close). The scenes where Tarzan struggles with his identity and is consoled by the similarities between human and gorilla works great thematically and as a giant middle finger to racism, and his initial gangling and awkward nature makes his transformation (another montage) into vine-swinging athlete visually astounding. Absolutely everything we see him go through makes the first real "Tarzan yell" of the film a moment of fist-pumping triumph, not just because it comes after a fantastic action sequence, but also because it's a fiercely victorious declaration of identity for the character.

The addition of Jane (Minnie Driver) to the film raises the stakes for the entire established cast. With all the work that the film puts into making Tarzan such an emotionally rich and compelling character, it would have been easy to draw her in broad forgettable strokes. But instead she's an adorable, feisty heroine who, though she lacks Mulan's martial acumen and Pocahontas' mystic nature connection, is defined by her passions rather than her place in the story, and her contrast with the title character makes her a perfect romantic foil. Her guide Clayton (the incomparable Brian Blessed) is the one who fills the role of alpha male imperialist, complete with itchy trigger finger and a distaste for scientific research, and again is a great foil for the supposedly "savage" - but actually sensitive and socially responsible - Tarzan.

I really can't stress enough how well this movie nails Tarzan himself. From the character design, which has the familiar elements but shakes them up with things like Tarzan's dreadlocks and ape-like posture/movement, to the animation, which is nothing short of astounding. This film holds up visually better than any other film of the Disney Renaissance apart from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it's largely thanks to Keane's gorgeous work with the title character. Tarzan's knuckle-walking, tree-surfing movement really has to be seen to be believed, and makes for an utterly unique take on the classic character. That would be impressive enough in its own right, but the transformation Tarzan makes from wild man to learning about and mimicking his fellow humans (yet another montage) is flat-out magic. Tony Goldwin's commanding vocal performance helps in no small part, walking a fine line between quietly sensitive and ferocious, with a healthy sense of humor in between.

The already-impressive hand-drawn animation received no small help from the growing involvement of CGI. In addition to the Pixar-developed CAPS system, Tarzan saw the creation of a program called "Deep Canvas" which allowed artists to render CGI backgrounds that looked like hand-drawn paintings, allowing for longer "takes" during movement-heavy sequences. The system saw use in later Disney films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, but its primary purpose here is to help create the magnificent scenes of Tarzan traversing his jungle home.

I've spent more than a few words praising this film, but it's not without its flaws. The movie borrows heavily from the "Cartoon adventure. . . for boys also!" strategy used in Aladdin, and the "sidekicks and comedy" mandate of this era of Disney Animation is alive and well here. Comedians Rosie O'Donnell and Wayne Knight are Tarzan's animal buddies Terk and Tantor, and. . . well, they're about as obnoxious as you'd expect. O'Donnell is also key to (and supposedly responsible for) the 'N Sync/Phil Collins team-up "Trashin' the Camp" - which is pretty bad. However, like with Mulan, the film makes the effort of giving a real emotional connection to even the "throwaway" supporting cast, making their involvement in the film ultimately worthwhile.

The film also knows when to sequester the comic relief from the dramatic goings on (or at least involve them dramatically rather than comedically). Which is lucky, because Tarzan sneaks some rather grim details into its story, with things like shots of slain parents surrounding by bloody footprints and the on-screen fatal shooting of main characters, to say nothing of what might be the darkest Disney villain death of that era. The film ends with a one-two dramatic punch that gives real stakes to the finale and earns the film's resolution in a way that few family films manage.

While it's not the classic that Beauty and the Beast is, Tarzan remains a compulsively watchable film. It features more montages than a handful of sports movies, but it knows how to use them and - more importantly - how to ground these visually-arresting segments and the rest of the film in the characters. While the Ape Man has seen plenty of other film adaptations, this may just be the best of the lot.

And that's the Disney Renaissance.

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