Female empowerment, cultural pride, and a respect for God’s Good Earth are excellent things in a Disney family movie. But just as ’90s scenes of Chinese and Native American chicks peering at their reflections in rippling pools while warbling ”I Am Strong (and I Will Save the Rainforest)!” were starting to taste awfully medicinal, along comes Tarzan, Disney’s most elegant animated ”classic” in years. And one of the film’s great, old-fashioned virtues is how blessedly sermon-free this new adaptation is.
True, there are a few unsubtle exhortations. In a brief interspecies homily, Kala, the idealized goril- la mother who finds baby Tarzan after his parents have been killed (off screen, thanks) by a tiger, murmurs, with the maternal voice of Glenn Close, ”Forget what you see — what do you feel?” (Her sensitive surrogate son is upset because he’s so different from his hairy adoptive parents.) And obviously, the story teaches that hurting animals is very, very wrong. But this retelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ripping 1914 yarn — one of Hollywood’s most renewable resources — is, above all, a symphony of jungle rhythms rather than blues.
This is an adventure story about agility, instinct, and anthropological appreciation. (In other words, dig Tarzan’s beautifully drawn knuckles!) And never is the film — directed with zip and dignified humor by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck — more in the groove than when Tarzan swings. Because this Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) doesn’t just perform Weissmuller-ish vine-to-vine leaps; he surfs a magnificently lush environment made possible by the animators’ newest tech toy, Deep Canvas.
Perhaps unavoidably, perhaps craftily, there are a fair amount of Lion King mementos: The gripping opening sequence, in particular, which establishes Tarzan’s patrimony, introduces Kala and her dominant mate, Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), and deposits the baby in his new environment, reverberates with that ”Circle of Life” feeling. But even while employing another one of those mouthy New Yorker- plus-bumbling sidekick duos that so dependably crack up the peanut gallery, Tarzan escapes the giant shadow cast by The Lion King‘s popular wildlife vaudeville team, Pumbaa and Timon. Barely, anyway, with a loose Rosie O’Donnell as the voice of Tarzan’s simian pal, Terk, and Wayne Knight as the local elephant Newman, I mean Tantor.
Tarzan is, unapologetically, one for the boys. But Jane — the adventurous Englishwoman who becomes the legendary yodeler’s mate — makes a dashing love interest without calling undue attention to her perfectly self-confident femininity. After an initial bit of pip-pip fluster, laid on thick by Minnie Driver, Jane proves equally resourceful. The girl has been fortuitously fathered by a kindly professor, voiced by Nigel Hawthorne, and is quite matter-of-factly his scientific collaborator. Yet she’s not one to stare pensively into a rippling reflecting pool anytime soon. Drawn with exaggerated ingenue characteristics that render her far less anatomically mature than her beau (her ski-jump nose appears to be the work of primitive rhinoplasty), this Jane is more likely to be sketching her furry friends than crooning about love and destiny.
In the realm of crooning, indeed, the guy who appears to have been philosophizing about love and destiny most feverishly is Phil Collins, who has here created his own heavy musical canvas. Collins is the non-wild-man king of drums and reverb, and in the opening number, ”Two Worlds,” that hoo-ha blends smoothly with the visual panoply. Later, too, when Terk, Tantor, and friends bust up the Englishfolks’ camp, the Collins way with pots and pans makes a nice percussive interlude, with some scat singing by Rosie.
By the last thump-a-dum-dum, though, as villains have been vanquished and the hero has saved his family, the composer’s unvarying, heavy-footed tunes register only faintly in a movie that is, above all, about lightness of touch. Tarzan — a thrilling saga about a natural man, untainted by the complications of ”civilized” life, who can anticipate changes in the air by sniffing the wind — swings because the Disney team, having sniffed the wind, went out on a limb and kept things simple. A-