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Nashville Scene Jungle Fever

Disney's "Tarzan" swings, even if its resolution falls flat

By Donna Bowman

JULY 12, 1999:  When a story has been retold over many generations, any new telling has to find a meaning that touches present concerns. Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan the Ape-Man in 1912 as a noble savage. The Tarzan movies of the 1920s and '30s presented world-bridging romance and pulp adventure escapism. In the '60s, on TV and movie screens, Tarzan became a classic outsider figure, belonging neither in the jungle that had adopted him nor in the civilization that begat him.

It just so happens that one of the chief obsessions of the '90s, the redefinition of the family, finds a perfect match in the Tarzan story, and Disney's new animated version has this theme at its heart. Hollywood has recently been preoccupied with distant fathers, broken homes, and the child's search for identity, and one might expect this oft-repeated story to be on its last legs. But in the old tale of Tarzan, writer Tab Murphy has found a natural habitat. In his hands, Tarzan's choice between nature and nurture, between his genetic heritage and his adopted home, is powerfully reimagined.

The fact that this Tarzan is animated enhances the story's impact. Animation can solve some of the problems inherent in the tale of a human being raised by apes: The spectacle of an actor swinging from vine to vine, walking on his knuckles, and sniffing unfamiliar objects is distracting. We can't help but know, somewhere behind our suspension of disbelief, that this person is pretending. But a drawn character lies between the familiar and the alien, just like Tarzan himself. When interacting with gorillas, he can be perfectly animal; when interacting with human beings, he imitates them with unstudied ease, and we are free to focus on something other than virtuoso acting.

Yet Tarzan isn't an unqualified success, since the Disney animated franchise still caters to kids in a predictable fashion. A stunning, wordless sequence accompanied by Phil Collins' theme "Two Worlds" establishes the backstory: A British couple survives a shipwreck only to be killed by a marauding leopard. Their infant son is taken in by Kala (voiced by Glenn Close), a gorilla mother who recently lost her own baby, and tolerated by Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), the silverback. As Tarzan matures, however, comic elements, like Rosie O'Donnell as Terk the gorilla and Wayne Knight as Tantor the elephant, take over the film for long intervals. The film reaches its nadir when they invade the camp of some visiting explorers and lead an impromptu jam session with makeshift noisemakers.

Just as some animal characters succumb to the usual Disney formula, some of the human characters fit well-defined kiddie-movie stereotypes. The exploration party consists of Professor Potter (Nigel Hawthorne), a dotty old softhead; Clayton (Brian Blessed), a preening great white hunter; and Jane (Minnie Driver), Potter's daughter. Only Jane emerges as an original character, breaking the mold of Disney female love interests by the sheer force of Driver's personality.

The film's ending, which revolves around Clayton's predictable greed and Tarzan's ultimate choice, is its biggest cop-out. Rather than face squarely the question of Tarzan's place in the larger human family, Murphy's script scrambles off the boat and back into the safety of the jungle--unspoiled nature, the only unambiguous good we seem to be able to agree on these days. Murphy places Tarzan's moment of decision at Kerchak's side, going for the father-reconciliation vibe. But in reality, the moment of greatest pathos is when Tarzan first realizes he has the option of choosing a new family in Jane, rather than being stuck with the one his childhood defined for him. In the end, the filmmakers take Tarzan's choice away from him, believing that choosing civilization over wilderness is unimaginable.

Yet despite these major flaws, Tarzan leaves the viewer with a sense of robust strength and a profound engagement with important ideas. It sounds unbearably pop-psych to say that Tarzan's story is that of the blended family--but whatever terminology we use, the fact that our concept of the family has been disturbed and changed in recent years is unavoidable. The character of Tarzan is a perfect vehicle for exposing our ambivalence about these developments. Many of the children who'll see this movie, not to mention their parents, are caught between two worlds and are searching for one family (in the words of Collins' terrific song). Watching the ape-man wrestle with his identity, they will respond and they will learn. The truth in the tale isn't limited to our time--but what a perfect time it is for that truth.


Mild mild waste

There's a rhythm to a big summer blockbuster--a patter so precise that any misplayed note can lead to unacceptable discord. The mammoth Wild Wild West misplays a whole bunch of notes, which may explain why the critical reaction to the film has been so violently negative. There's no denying that the picture is a mess; but speaking as someone who finds the "blockbuster rhythm" to be generally stupefying, there's some pleasure to be had in tuning in those rogue notes.

Barry Sonnenfeld, director of Men in Black and Get Shorty, adapts the cult television series. The story, like the show, is set in a post-Civil War America struggling with its reunified destiny. The country is about to be conquered by charismatic confederate Arliss Loveless (played here with panache and no legs by Kenneth Branagh); backing President Grant and the Union are two government agents, dapper gunslinger Jim West (played by Will Smith) and inventor Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline).

The film arrives DOA in its first half hour, as Sonnenfeld and his team of screenwriters deliver not one, not two, but three consecutive action sequences set in crowded rooms with scantily clad women huddling in the wings. The scenes are dark, dull, and--with the persistent presence of prostitutes--needlessly randy.

Once Sonnenfeld and master cinematographer Michael Ballhaus move outdoors, though, the brighter light illuminates the leads a little more--especially Kline, who is almost poignant in his portrayal of a wide-eyed gadget hound and "master of disguise" who doesn't even know what a woman's breasts are supposed to feel like. Equally cool are the gadgets themselves, all pneumatic and rickety.

Still, the pans are mostly justified. Female lead Salma Hayek is purposeless, the close-up fight scenes are too complicated to follow, and except for Branagh's big (probably self-penned) speeches, there's nothing snappy about the dialogue. What is worth praising is a level of visual invention and narrative spark that's rare for an expensive summer time-waster. Between Smith's suave brutality, Kline's foggy romanticism, and Sonnenfeld's giddy contrasting of the Western landscape with steam-powered contraptions, Wild Wild West almost achieves an enjoyable style.

My biggest quibble is that the film ends just when it's finally getting its newer, funkier rhythm together. That's one thing that Wild Wild West has in common with most would-be studio franchises--it's all introduction and no get-to-know-ya.

--Noel Murray


The scarlet letter

During the recent controversy over the MPAA rating system, Chicago critic Roger Ebert pointed to a British film called Get Real as an example of the board's conservative bias. The film contains a smattering of bad language (mostly British slang), no nudity, no violence beyond a split lip, and no graphic sex talk. Yet the MPAA gave it an R rating--no one under 17 admitted without parent or guardian, if you believe theater owners' new tough talk. There's only one reason for the restriction: the movie is about teenagers discovering that they're gay.

Ebert is right on target. A less sensationalized portrayal of growing up gay can hardly be imagined: All the action takes place in the boys' tortured minds, not in the sack. Steven (played by Ben Silverstone) has known about his homosexuality since puberty but stays in the closet and settles for anonymous trysts arranged in a public park. One of those assignations turns out to be the school stud and star athlete John Dixon (Brad Gorton), and Steven suddenly has someone else's secret to keep along with his own. His growing frustration with his partner's denial, his parents' ignorance, and his schoolmates' unthinking homophobia goads him toward a momentous announcement.

Director Simon Shore and writer Patrick Wilde approach their delicate subject matter from an emotional angle. Their concern is the fragile ego of their protagonist Steven, an artistic lad with an ambition to be a writer. Steven has the usual adolescent crushes and endures the usual abuse from the class thugs. His life is just more complicated because there's no socially acceptable outlet for him to learn about his sexuality. If anything, the movie is too skittish about gay sex, the act that underlies his parents' revulsion, his classmates' taunts, and his lover's confusion. Without some indication of physical love and homosexual desire, an uninformed youngster could see Get Real without being able to figure out what all the fuss is about.

At times the movie's atmosphere has an afterschool-special quality--kids' problems illustrated with school literary magazines and heart-to-heart talks. But the performance of the two leads transcends the simplistic script. Their awkward silences, eager boyishness, and cruelty in the face of peer pressure epitomize young love, not just young gay love. All coming-of-age films are about shattered illusions, and this one leaves the shards of its characters' cherished ideals littered in its wake. But even if it doesn't end with Steven's honesty earning universal huzzahs, Get Real is guardedly optimistic about his prospects.

Yet that optimism is at odds with the American values represented by the MPAA, it seems. The very teenagers whose story is told by Get Real are forbidden to buy a ticket on their own to see it. They're thus protected from one male-to-male kiss between lovers who barely unbutton their shirts while onscreen--something far more dangerous and adult, apparently, than gory impalings in action movies or smutty jokes in gross-out comedies. At the end of the film, Steven tells his friends' parents that there are other kids out there like him. Since the MPAA thinks all serious depictions of homosexual love are for adults only, I'd say the ratings board didn't get the message.

--Donna Bowman


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