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The Boston Phoenix Disney Goes Ape

"Tarzan" is powerful mythology

By Jeffrey Gantz

JUNE 21, 1999:  Edgar Rice Burroughs can hardly imagine what he was starting when, as a neophyte author with a family to support, he sold his "Tarzan of the Apes" to All-Story Magazine in 1912. Some 23 Tarzan novels (just counting those Burroughs wrote himself). Some 20 movies, starting with the 1918 silent (with Elmo Lincoln in the title role) and going on to the Johnny Weissmuller/Maureen O'Sullivan classics (the first of which, Tarzan the Ape Man, came out in '32), the 1981 Miles O'Keeffe/Bo Derek remake, Hugh Hudson's 1984 Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (with Christopher Lambert and Andie MacDowell), and last year's Tarzan and the Lost City (with Casper Van Dien and Jane March). Comic strips as early as 1929, then comic books (the Tarzan I grew up with, in the early '50s). Live-action TV series starring Ron Ely (the first, from 1966 to 1969, with no Jane), Wolf Larsen, and Joe Lara, plus an elephant herd of Saturday-morning cartoons.

Now Disney. You might ask what took Walt & co. so long -- especially since Burroughs himself envisioned an animated Tarzan as early as 1936. Or you might wonder whether, after nearly a century of Tarzana, there's anything left to say.

In fact, despite simplifying and making the story suitable for children, Disney finds plenty. The myth is a powerful one: the man who is also a beast, a hunter, a provider, a protector in a savage, post-Darwinian world, our link to the apes from which we descended. James Fenimore Cooper touches on it in his Leatherstocking Tales; E.M. Forster hints at it in A Room with a View (where Lucy Honeychurch chooses the virile George over the effete Cecil), and indeed it's not hard to see why it flourished in Edwardian and World War I England, with the overcivilized British Empire slowly setting in the west. (The idea even turns up in James Cameron's Titanic, Rose preferring Jack to Cal.) Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes, which first appeared as a novel in 1914, is the story of an ape man who's also a titled peer, Lord Greystoke. The first Johnny Weissmuller/Maureen O'Sullivan film makes Tarzan a laconic, seemingly slow-witted primitive (Burroughs's Tarzan, improbably, teaches himself to read and write from his father's books and soon learns to speak perfect English as well), but he wasn't primitive enough to fend off cinematic competition from an even more apelike hero, King Kong, with Fay Wray as Jane.

Disney hews closer to Burroughs, both in concept and in details, than most of the versions that followed: this new animated Tarzan moves like an ape (with some skate- and surfboard moves thrown in) but thinks like a man. He also has something few Disney heroes have ever had: a mother. The story opens with Tarzan's birth parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke, abandoning their flaming ship off the coast of Africa. They set up house in the jungle, where Tarzan is born, but his mother dies and his father is killed by the leopard Sabor. Sabor has also dispatched the baby of gorilla couple Kerchak and Kala, so when Kala hears Tarzan crying, her maternal instincts kick back in. Ever since Bambi's mother died, Disney has been giving us motherless children (Cinderella, Ariel, Beauty, Pocahontas) if not orphans (Peter Pan -- but it's his mother he wants). Tarzan has a loving foster mother but no foster father, since Kerchak refuses to accept the baby, saying, "It's not our kind."

The usual Disney themes apply: Tarzan grows up hoping to be accepted by Kerchak and trying to figure out why he's different from the other apes. Voiced by Alex D. Linz (Home Alone 3), he's relentlessly cute and whitebread, getting into mischief with his wisecracking gorilla pal Terk (Rosie O'Donnell) and his neurotic elephant buddy Tantor (Taylor Dempsey), invariably angering Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), invariably being consoled by his mother. Kala (Glenn Close) is all apprehension as she creeps into the Greystokes' treehouse and peers around, eyes big, nostrils flared, mouth pursed and lowered, and even when she cradles Tarzan she hardly knows what to make of this hairless, odd-smelling white ape. But the animators have given her such grace, such tenderness, such solicitude, she looks like the gorilla version of an overstuffed teddy bear, and Close's delivery provides her June Cleaver lines a depth the scriptwriters left out.

Once humans arrive, the adult Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) has to choose which world he wants to live in. In Burroughs's novel, Professor Porter and his daughter Jane are put ashore by mutinous sailors; here the professor (Nigel Hawthorne) is a dotty scientist hoping to study gorillas with the help of his supportive daughter (Minnie Driver). The serpent in the garden is their jungle guide, Clayton (Brian Blessed), a first cousin of Pocahontas's Ratcliffe who's scheming to capture the gorillas and sell them. (In the original, Clayton is Tarzan's cousin and his rival for Jane, so there's an opportunity lost.) Naturally Tarzan, after a few well-meaning blunders, saves most of his family (killed by the white hunters, a dying Kerchak finally accepts his son) and exposes Clayton for the creep that he is.

But Disney animations are almost invariably love stories, so it's no surprise that the heart of this Tarzan is the one shared by Tarzan and Jane. Minnie Driver and the animators turn Jane into a young Julie Andrews, a girl who, in her proper English dress and school tie and white gloves and matching parasol, looks stuffy but is really sly and full of fun. Like Tarzan, like her father, like everyone at Disney, Jane loves animals; when a baby monkey perches on her shoulder she gives it an affectionate, almost maternal look (echoing Kala's adoption of Tarzan). It's not till the end of the movie that she and Tarzan are able to talk to each other, but they've sealed their love long before then: it's in the way they first look at each other, the timid, innocent acceptance of an Adam and Eve. It's that primal -- and that powerful.

Critics will complain that Disney has watered down Burroughs's vision. With reason: in the novel Kerchak is a bull ape who kills Tarzan's father and is eventually killed by Tarzan, and Kala is killed by native hunters. There are, of course, no natives in this Tarzan, any more than there were in The Lion King; Disney has now managed to make two African-set animations without a single black character, and with precious few black actors. And the love story is just Pocahontas in reverse, white guy and native girl there, white girl and native guy here.

Still, this Tarzan isn't far from what Burroughs imagined: an intelligent, feral creature who spends most of the movie creeping about on all fours. The animators have resisted the temptation to make him a hunk in a loincloth: with his long face and exaggerated narrow chin (a caricature of Tony Goldwyn's face), he's not even conventionally handsome. This is a peach of a summer movie (I found the roller-coaster swooping through the trees more fun than the multi-million-dollar special effects of Star Wars, which I'd seen just the night before), but the oversized, overexpressive faces make it something more, whether it's Tarzan and Jane examining each other in wonder or Tantor panicking at the sight of pond scum or Kala dissolving into rapture at having a baby again. Bigger-than-life, after all, is what myth is all about.



On the vine

Tarzan is the first Disney animation I can recall that's not really a musical. It's got music, of course, and five songs by Phil Collins, but with the exception of Kala's lullaby "You'll Be in My Heart" (Glenn Close does the first verse, very nicely, before Collins takes over) and some bopping by Terk (Rosie O'Donnell) in "Trashin' the Camp," the characters don't sing -- Collins provides background vocals, just as in a regular movie. The tunes are poppy but generic, with, no surprise, Afro-Celtic rhythms; the most kinetic is the backbeat-heavy "Son of Man." The lyrics fall into the "I gotta be me but who am I" mode of The Lion King and Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan -- sample from "Strangers like Me": "Oh I just know there's something/Bigger out there." Alternate versions are included: Collins does his own "You'll Be in My Heart," then teams up with the obligatory hot guest -- this time it's 'N Sync -- for "Trashin' the Camp." Black musicians are conspicuous by their absence.

If you want to go back to where it all started, be warned that Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes is a bit of a potboiler, with a complicated, messy plot (Jane actually has two other suitors, and Tarzan follows her to Baltimore and, yes, Wisconsin) and some purple prose: "Jane -- her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration -- watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman -- for her." Then there's the cliffhanger ending. Burroughs was no fool: if you want to know whether Tarzan marries Jane, you'll have to ante up for The Return of Tarzan.

Or you could save time and watch the 1932 movie. Johnny Weissmuller scarcely speaks in Tarzan the Ape Man, but Maureen O'Sullivan talks enough for two, bantering on as if she had Clark Gable in front of her. The sensibility is vaguely Burroughsian; the story -- Jane's father wants to find the elephant graveyard -- isn't. The romance is just heating up at the end, so be prepared to head back to the video store for Tarzan and His Mate.

Tarzan comics go back almost as far as Tarzan novels, offering in the early '30s episodes like "Tarzan's First Christmas" and "Tarzan Goes Fox Hunting." The older comics are collectors' items; contemporary versions have Tarzan dropping in on, say, the Phantom of the Opera. Instead, try Darkhorse's reissue of Russ Manning's '60s comic: Tarzan looks like Mr. America and Jane like Miss Universe, but the gorillas are realistic, the artwork is exquisite, the compacted adaptation is reasonably faithful, and Tarzan's ape language -- "Kreegah! Tarzan bundolo!" -- still sends shivers down the spine.


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