By Steve Daly
February 04, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

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.

Even current live-action technology can’t compete with Disney’s ‘toon stunt work for the way it realizes Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original vision of Tarzan’s athletic prowess. So it’s a hoot to dial back in movie history to one of Hollywood’s earliest, primitive attempts to film Burroughs, Tarzan and His Mate (1934, MGM, 93 mins., unrated). This was the second MGM Tarzan picture of six starring Olympic swimming champ Johnny Weissmuller, and since it was the last one made before the Production Code came into full effect, it goes much further in playing up the erotic life of Tarzan and Jane (a practically naked Maureen O’Sullivan). “Oh Tarzan, you’re a bad boy,” Jane scolds playfully when her ape-man gets frisky in their tree house. They turn the jungle into one big necking couch, and Jane’s skinny-dipping still shocks.

But as soon as Tarzan has to do what Tarzan does best — swing from vines, fight jungle beasties — the limits of crude ’30s moviemaking turn Mate into a comedy. This Tarzan doesn’t leap from vine to vine like Disney’s animated man can; he’s got to swing from a trapeze, like a circus artist. Not a bit convincing.

The physical production is much more lavish in the epic Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984, Warner, 129 mins., PG), but lavish doesn’t mean believable. Even with valiant efforts by makeup artist Rick Baker to transform a bunch of actors in suits into apes, the overly fussy staging and compositions look too rehearsed. (To Baker’s credit, his creations are actually more lively than sullen stars Christopher Lambert and Andie MacDowell — whose dialogue, freakily enough, was overdubbed by Glenn Close, who went on to voice Tarzan’s monkey mother in the Disney ‘toon.)

No matter which live-action Tarzan adventure you might rent or catch on TV (lots of them have never been released on VHS or DVD), none can top the surpassing emotion of the last scene of the Disney version. It’s a sustained, exhilarating dolly shot during which Tarzan and Jane bough-surf through the trees past their own unique extended family: Jane’s human dad, Tarzan’s ape mom, all their animal friends — until they finally arrive at a treetop clearing that’s theirs alone. This one swooping bit of choreography sums up an entire marriage in about 20 seconds, carried by the superbly drawn expressions, by Phil Collins’ soaring songs, and by the neatest computer-generated background work since Keanu Reeves did the backstroke in slow motion. I’m over that whole black-trench-coated-chic thing at this point, but I could still swing on Tarzan’s cartoon vines for days.

Tarzan: A-

Tarzan and His Mate: B+

Greystoke: C+

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