Once in a while, movie special-effects technology jumps forward in a way that makes a new little door open up in your head. Like the first time you see ”The Matrix,” and the camera swirls around and around Keanu Reeves’ body, splayed at impossible angles while he dodges bullets. You think, wow — this isn’t quite like anything put on film before.
But if I had to pick the best eye candy on the video shelf right now, I’d say it was Disney’s animated Tarzan. Yes, it’s weird to think of a cartoon as a high-tech ”effects” movie. But the way Disney’s Soloflex-buff lord of the jungle swings through his domain in three dimensions is one of the greatest technical wonders in years. And what the Disney artists pulled off with a background-enhancing technology called Deep Canvas looks just as exciting at home as it did in theaters; it’s actually a little easier to appreciate in smaller home-screen sizes, since it isn’t quite as overwhelmingly frenetic.
Take the staggering sequence in which Tarzan rescues Jane from a pack of jabbering baboons. Here’s a long, sustained chase where the characters don’t just move ”across” the screen, past layers of flat backgrounds. They go around, into, and ”through” backgrounds that are themselves animated — yet still look as if they were painted with feathery brushstrokes, not drawn as hard-outlined shapes and then filled in with solid colors. Plenty of Japanese animated fare has simulated these types of camera moves before, but never in ways that looked this thoroughly three-dimensional, or that blended so seamlessly with regular, static painted backgrounds.
It’s not just the quick-cut action scenes that burst free from two-dimensional confines. There’s a quiet moment where the odd-couple lovers (voiced beguilingly by Minnie Driver and Tony Goldwyn) visit Tarzan’s simian relatives. The camera actually appears to tilt upward in space past the duo, then moves up into the branches to reveal dozens of apes gathered to greet them. You saw it here first — and very soon, other animated features will be scrambling to match and outdo this newly acrobatic visual virtuosity.