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Disney's version of Burroughs' wild man still swings, but he's a bit too tame

Disney departed from its usual practice of basing its big animated features on classic literature or myth when it made what has proved to be one of the studio's most popular films ever, The Lion King. Yet, just barely beneath its surface, that film had a streak of xenophobia carried almost to the point of fascism--the effeminate usurper of a hereditary title pollutes the leonine kingdom by integrating the hyenas, creatures with ethnic voices, into the pride. Late in the movie, there's a shot of an army of hyenas goose-stepping; clearly someone working on the picture was alert to the subtext and decided it would be wise to distract us from it by sneaking the jackboots onto the wrong paws.

Given the almost-Aryan mythos of The Lion King, one would expect Tarzan, Disney's newest excursion into the jungle, to drip with upper-class entitlement and subliminal racism. The source material is from Edgar Rice Burroughs, who may just be the least politically correct of popular American writers. His 1914 novel Tarzan of the Apes, and most of his other works, are full of gushingly described brawny white heroes chastising swarthy savages and ravenous beasts, and not much separates the two kinds of enemy. Blacks are either fierce cannibals or faithful retainers, and women, whether pure or seductive, are swooning damsels.

Like many Americans (still), Burroughs was also dazzled by the idea of English nobility. Tarzan of the Apes hinges on the conception that if you take a titled British lord and abandon him as a naked infant in the wilds of Darkest Africa, he will just naturally, by dint of his inherent superiority, become the Lord of the Jungle.

Yet, somehow hardly any of this sensibility carries over into Disney's Tarzan. And, oddly, this is a bit disappointing, since along with Burroughs' obsessions, however retrograde, much of his passion has also been drained out of the story.

The biggest letdown in this Tarzan is the handling of the apes. In the novel, our hero's parents are marooned on the African coast by mutineers (swarthy, of course). Both soon die at the hands of Burroughs' fanciful notion of gorillas--the boy's delicate mother succumbs simply from fright at their attack, and his father is mauled to death by Kerchak, the ferocious ape-clan ruler, who is on the point of killing the baby as well before he is rescued by the she-ape Kala. Kala gives him the name "Tarzan"--"White Skin" in Burroughs' apespeak--and raises and protects him.

It's been pointed out that mothers don't get much play in the world of Disney animated fantasy--they're usually either absent altogether, as in The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast, or else they're minor background figures, as in The Lion King. I had hoped that Kala's bottomless, courageous devotion to her foundling son might partly redress this gap. As ludicrous as it is, it's hard not to be touched when, in the novel, Tarzan proclaims, "My mother was an Ape. . . . I never knew who my father was."

In Disney's Tarzan, even though Glenn Close was brought aboard to lend Kala her fine strong voice, the ape-mother still remains a recessive figure, and Kerchak, who simply feels the boy is a threat, is no longer so much a menace as one more dad who just doesn't understand.

As science now knows the gorilla to be a peaceable creature, and in light of the appalling degree to which the species is endangered--Kerchak's misgivings about interacting with humans have proved tragically sound for his species--Disney's decision to retell the story without the "killer ape" calumny seems entirely reasonable. Burroughs, after all, never visited Africa. For that matter, no one should expect fidelity to all of Burroughs' pulpy ideas and plot twists. It's not usually remembered that the plot of the novel reaches its climax not in Africa but in a forest fire in Wisconsin. But this film reworks the novel's hoary theme--a man becomes master of a dangerous world through superior breeding--into an equally maddening modern formula. Did it really have to be one more tour of the Search for the Father's Approval?

Granting all of this, however, there's still no doubt that the title character has swung his way through far less artful and thoughtful incarnations than this, especially in the last two decades. An utterly abysmal 1981 Tarzan, the Ape Man was mostly a showcase for a topless Bo Derek as Jane, and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Hugh Hudson's 1984 attempt to take the tale seriously, was a scattered misfire. As recently as last year, an unintentional laugh-riot called Tarzan and the Lost City starred Casper Van Dien, whose Nazi-poster-art looks might, at least, have pleased Burroughs.

By comparison, Disney's Tarzan is a fine entertainment value. Most kids will probably love it, and it won't leave you fidgeting. It's beautifully made--considering the literally thousands of names that crawl past in the end titles, it better be--drenched in deep, rich emerald, with sinuous tracking visuals driven forward by pleasantly African-flavored songs from Phil Collins.

The characters just don't leap to life here as vividly as you want them to, however. The cartoonish big-band animals of Disney's The Jungle Book had more storybook vitality than the residents of Tarzan's jungle. The strongest of the vocal performances is by Minnie Driver, who gives a charming, non-syrupy reading to Jane. The title character, rendered with an appropriately impossible sinewy physique (no less impossible, of course, is Jane's wasp waist) and dark ropey hair, is voiced by Tony Goldwyn, a curly-haired fellow from the same competent-but-generic category as Tate Donovan, who provided the voice for Disney's Hercules.

The villains are a leopard who never speaks and a great white hunter who, even with the magnificent pipes of Brian Blessed behind him, has no real personality. The comic relief, the spunky young gorilla Terk and the fussy elephant Tantor, voiced by Rosie O'Donnell and Wayne Knight respectively, share the Jar Jar Binks duty on this film; adults may cringe at their corny antics, but kids giggle.

Tarzan
Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck; with the voices of Tony Goldwyn and Minnie Driver.

Rated

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