Review: Disney's "Tarzan" Blu-ray Triumphs
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan has been a perennial on screens large and small for decades, so it’s surprising that one of the most faithful adaptations of the original novel is Disney’s Tarzan, now available on a new deluxe Blu-ray combo pack edition. Released in 1999, Tarzan is one of the true gems of the post-Renaissance period after the quartet of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. The movies that ran from Pocahontas to Treasure Planet were marked by experimentation from the basic formula constructed by the Disney Renaissance films, some more successful than others. While it has some non-trivial failings, Tarzan is one of the more successful experiments in both the advances in animation technology and in its handling of the story material.
Orphaned as an infant, the boy Tarzan is adopted by the kindly gorilla Kala (Glenn Close) over the objections of her mate Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), the silverback alpha male of her pod. Among the apes, Tarzan grows to manhood (and a vocal performance by Tony Goldwyn), developing into a lithe Adonis and surviving through intelligence and tool-making ability when his prodigious physical abilities fall short. His shock is profound when he encounters a trio of explorers in the jungle: the befuddled Professor Archimedes Q. Porter (Nigel Hawthorne), his young and intrepid daughter Jane (a marvelous Minnie Driver), and their suave but trigger-happy guide Clayton (Brian Blessed). Tarzan finds himself torn between the two worlds, and is ultimately compelled to choose between his biological species or his adopted one.
Disney’s Tarzan is a testament to the power of animation as a medium, since it brings Edgar Rice Burroughs’ mythical lord of the apes and his jungle home to vibrant life so thoroughly and believably. The logistical issues of creating dense jungle environments in animation are trivial compared to the effort required to film in a real jungle. An animated jungle can be as rich and lush as time and money will allow, and Tarzan places its title character deep in the heart of a dense jungle that teems with life, especially when compared to the artificial sets or more sparsely populated substitutes that most live-action versions settle for. Similarly, animation can turn the animal cast into genuine characters, rather than relegating them to limited bit parts or comic relief. Sabor the leopard is an archetype of liquid feline savagery: vicious fangs and claws moving with a lethal grace and blinding speed. There is never any doubt that Kerchak and Kala and the rest of the pod are simian from their designs and their body language, but giving them dialogue lends them depth and (if you’ll forgive the species-ist term) humanity that makes them truly compelling, interesting, and sympathetic characters. It certainly helps that Glenn Close’s performance as Kala is so beautifully warm and heartfelt, while Lance Henriksen’s gruff rasp as Kerchak can make him feel genuinely threatening while ensuring we don’t lose our sympathies for him. The filmmakers realized that animation granted them the opportunity to explore Tarzan’s relationship with his adopted family at a depth not seen since the original novel, and they capitalized on that opportunity marvelously.
The true strength of animation is visible Tarzan himself, who can come to life in a way that no human actor could approach. It’s often said that character in animation is communicated through the way someone moves. Disney’s Tarzan brings that to life beautifully in its title character. His hunched posture, four-footed gait, and use of his feet and toes as extra hands are all vivid visual shorthand that communicates his upbringing in the wild. He is a true Ape-Man, and can engage in feats of raw physicality that would be extremely difficult (if not outright lethal) to even the most gifted stuntmen or acrobats. Animation also means Tarzan can interact with whatever wild animals the filmmakers care to throw at him without putting actor or animal in peril or placing unreasonable demands on either one. Today, getting human actors to move like higher primates in the new Planet of the Apes movies requires weeks of physical training, multiple prosthetics, motion capture suits, and an army of the best CGI animators available. The animated Tarzan was achieving the same feat, arguably more convincingly, nearly 15 years ago with pencils.
Another major technical innovation that is used to beautiful effect in Tarzan is Deep Canvas, which mated hand-drawn animation to the best CGI technology of the time to allow for more visual depth and versatile camera movement. There is perhaps no film better suited to pioneer Deep Canvas than Tarzan, since the system lets its characters vault through jungles of arbitrary depth and complexity. In one of the most exciting scenes in the film, Tarzan rescues Jane from a horde of baboons, hurtling through a jungle that feels miles high and infinitely wide. It is the perfect environment to showcase Tarzan’s inhuman agility as he engages in jungle-style parkour, ricocheting off trees and free-running through the jungle canopy. A confrontation between Tarzan and Sabor uses Deep Canvas more subtly, but no less effectively in a nail-bitingly exciting action sequence. Deep Canvas gets a workout in other, much more subtle ways as well, lending a sense of depth and heightened authenticity to almost every scene.
The mid-to-late 90’s Disney films engaged in different experiments, sometimes stretching stock formulas to other cultures (Pocahontas or Mulan) or deliberately playing against expectations (as in Lilo and Stitch). In addition to its technical experimentation, Tarzan eschews the movie musical approach and treats its material with more adult sensibilities than had been seen before. While early versions of Tarzan experimented with musical numbers, the approach was thankfully replaced in favor of narrative songs by rock star Phil Collins. These songs are perfect for establishing mood, even if they are occasionally saddled with some excessively cheesy and too-on-the-nose lyrics. Even so, it’s hard not to be won over by the Oscar-winning “You’ll Be In My Heart” song, which begins as a lullaby for Kala to soothe an infant Tarzan before turning into background music for a montage of other jungle mothers and their offspring. It is a beautiful, heartwarming scene that means different things to the parents vs. the children in the audience — one of many elements of the movie that plays very successfully to the adult audience.
Tarzan is also much more serious than many of its contemporaries. The more lurid aspects of the original novel are toned down for younger audiences (especially Kerchak’s bloodthirstier impulses), while the casual racism acceptable a century ago is excised completely. Even so, the muscular pulp sensibilities that make the original Tarzan of the Apes novel so enduring are still visible in this movie. While it’s generally avoided or danced around in animated kids movies, the savage killings in the earliest minutes make it abundantly clear that death is very real and always lurking around the corner in Tarzan‘s jungles. Tarzan also seems to show much more faith in its audience in its frequent stretches without dialogue. There is no dialogue for the first 8 minutes of the movie, but the deep concern of Tarzan’s father, the heartbreak of Kala’s loss, and the savagery of Sabor’s attack are all expressively communicated through the subtlest of animated gestures. These dialogue-free opening minutes of the movie are so successful that it’s a bit of a shock when the gorillas start talking to each other.
Unfortunately, the more mature elements in Tarzan make it’s “G” rating by the MPAA laughably non-sensical (although, from personal experience, at least Tarzan ensures that more easily frightened children will self-select out of the audience during that exciting opening scene). It also makes the more immature elements feel entirely out of place, specifically the comic relief characters Terk the gorilla (Rosie O’Donnell) and Tantor the elephant (Wayne Knight). The worst part of their inclusion is that they’re genuinely entertaining characters with good material and wonderfully animated performances. The “Trashing the Camp” musical number is a truly excellent example of animated musical mayhem. They just don’t belong in this movie, and their inclusion feels less like comic relief than a loss of conviction to just tell the story straight. They feel like pandering to the kid audience, when the rest of the movie seems like it’s talking up to them. It’s also worth noting that Tarzan is more than capable of finding appropriate humor without the overt clowning of Terk and Tantor. It’s also true that Jane’s father is, if anything, toned down from his exaggerated buffoonish clowning in the original novel, so out-of-place comic relief is not really new to the world of Tarzan.
The Blu-ray of Tarzan is absolutely beautiful, from its rich, deep colors and razor-sharp video to the 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack. The high-definition presentation is visibly better than the original DVD release, to the point where some moments may even reveal a bit more than they should. Some moments in the film that rely on murky visuals are weakened by the crystal clear video, like the moment when Kala realizes what the shadows in the corner of Tarzan’s treehouse are or when Tarzan stares suspiciously at a dense patch of jungle. However, these moments are small prices to pay for the way the lush, verdant jungle is brought to life. The comprehensive set of bonus features from the original DVD are also all included on the Blu-ray. The commentary track by directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck and producer Bonnie Arnold is one of the best feature commentaries Disney has ever released: terrifically informative and definitely worth listening to. All the pre-production work and “making of” featurettes are a nice balance between length and thoroughness, pulling back the curtain just enough to give a satisfying look into the process without glossing over the immense challenges overcome by everyone in the cast and crew. The DVD included in the Blu-ray combo pack is a slight improvement over the original, but at the expense of most of the bonus features (which, miraculously, all fit on one disc). The release is also linked into Disney’s digital HD initiatives, including a digital copy usable on an inclusive swath of personal technology.
Tarzan is definitely a personal favorite among the late Disney Renaissance movies, before the studio began its second creative fallow period in the early 2000’s. While Disney exploited the franchise afterwards, it’s true spiritual successor is the underrated Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which eschewed the juvenile while retaining and updating classic pulp fiction sensibilities. However, that movie’s box office disappointment meant American animated action-adventure wouldn’t see success again until The Incredibles. Tarzan is a true gem in the history of Disney’s Animation Studio, and this new Blu-ray is definitely gives the movie the treatment it deserves.
After singing the praises of Tarzan at such length, I feel a little bad in shortchanging Mickey, Donald, and Goofy: The Three Musketeers by simply saying it’s pretty good. However, that is about the best I can muster for this solid but slightly underwhelming direct-to-video effort from 2004. On the plus side, it is quite successful at ensuring Mickey and his friends stay in-character as they cavort and swashbuckle in 17th century France. The story is only tangentially connected to the classic Alexandre Dumas novel, which should not be surprising considering the target audience and the 68 minute running time. Mickey, Donald, and Goofy dream of becoming musketeers as they labor in the bowels of the castle of Princess Minnie. A sinister plot by musketeer captain Pete and his henchwoman Clarabelle puts the lead trio in uniform as bodyguards to Minnie, with the hope that Mickey’s height, Goofy’s stupidity, and Donald’s cowardice will set them up for failure. The expected lesson in believing in yourself and overcoming your fears is cliché but decently executed, especially due to the amusing re-arrangements of classical music sung by the characters and the movie’s turtle narrator (voiced and sung by Rob Paulsen). The best sequence in the movie comes early on as Mickey, Donald, and Goofy accidentally wreck the castle, but the rest of the film never quite manages to capture the same sense of energy and liveliness, despite its best efforts. Disney made several other, much more cynical direct-to-video products from this same era, so The Three Musketeers can be considered a success just by not being awful. However, repeat viewing value for this movie is questionable.
Disney’s commitment to quality is manifest on this Blu-ray combo pack, as the movie gets a bright, colorful presentation and a solid if slightly under-used 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack. All bonus features from the original DVD are included; oddest is probably the mini-commentary section with Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and Pete commenting on the best scene in the movie. A DVD and digital copy are included as usual in Disney Blu-ray combo packs; oddly, all the bonus features that used to be on a single DVD aren’t included on the DVD in this release.