Sunday, 18 August 2013

OVERRATED: Tarzan (1999)

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Tarzan (USA, 1999)
Directed by Chris Buck & Kevin Lima
Starring Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Glenn Close, Lance Henriksen

Disney has always been at its best when it allows the material to shape its storytelling, rather than the other way around. The fact that many of Disney's greatest works are based on fairy tales is not simply down to the inherent appeal or potential of these stories. It is because Disney worked hard to tell these stories the right way, playing the likes of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty to their own strengths.

 
But as the company has grown and diversified, having recognisable conventions (for the purposes of branding) has often been a higher priority. This in turn has pushed the company into more conservative and conflicted film-making, where the many entrenched Disney conventions often trample on the material. Tarzan is not as disastrous as Atlantis in this regard, but it is another example of how the company's brand paranoia often comes at the expense of genuine creativity.
 
Like its immediate predecessors, Tarzan finds Disney attempting to apply the tropes that underpinned the Renaissance to stories that simply don't suit them. All the more marketable aspects of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin or The Lion King are here, but they don't so much serve the story as tick the boxes of audience expectations. The two sidekicks, one a wise-cracker, one a coward, are clearly trying to fill the roles of Lumiere and Cogsworth, but they are as unnecessary and incongruous as the talking gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
 
There have been many different approaches to Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel throughout the history of cinema. At one end we have the Johnny Weissmuller films of the 1930s, which embraced the pulpy nature of the story and played up both the fan-service and the spirit of adventure. At the other, we have Hugh Hudson's Greystoke starring Christopher Lambert, which attempted to redress this portrayal of Tarzan as a simpleton, and interwove many characteristics of the Pocahontas myth.
 
Disney's approach is closer to the former, in that it emphasises the incredible physicality of its main protagonist. The film has a big advantage over its live-action cousins, being able to create incredibly dangerous situations on screen in which no real actors could survive. Some of the action scenes are frenetic, such as Tarzan's rescue and escape with Jane; the fluid camera movements compliment the agile nature of Tarzan's body as he improvises a way out through the jungle he knows so well.
 
The film as a whole is visually strong. The sweeping, painterly backgrounds were created using a new technique called 'Deep Canvas', which allows CG artists to 'paint' in 3D space; the computer keeps a record of each brushstroke made, so that the finished product has the glossy sheen of a modern film but the detail of a traditional painting. This technique was subsequently applied on Atlantis and Treasure Planet, but it is at its best here, with the painterly style complimenting the character models, which take after some of the earliest comic book depictions of Tarzan.
 
On a technical level, then, Tarzan is pretty impressive. But sadly the narrative of the film can't live up to the high standards set by the visuals. This is an example of how Disney's early-2000s decline differs from the malaise that set in after Disney's death. In the 1960s less and less money was being devoted to animation, so standards naturally fell as the likes of Wolfgang Reitherman sought to save money by cutting corners. With Tarzan and its successors, the same levels of money are involved as earlier in the decade, but all the energy is being devoted to keeping the visuals great without the same level of concern being applied to the story.
 
To its credit, Tarzan does get the basic beats of its source material down pat. We see Tarzan being orphaned and adopted by the gorillas, being raised like an ape, and encountering his own kind for the first time as an adult. Both his upbringing by Kala and his developing love for Jane have a genuine emotional weight - though we have to put up with a lot of repetitive comedy to get to that point in the latter case.
 
All this seems fine, but there is one big problem with Tarzan. All of these events from the original story have been packaged around tried-and-tested Disney structures, so that it becomes less 'Tarzan, as told by Disney' and more 'a Disney film that just happens to have Tarzan in it'. The result is still passingly entertaining, but all the distinctive elements from Burroughs' story have been shoe-horned into marketable character arcs and archetypes, making the whole experience rather forgettable.
 
More specifically, this film is attempting to take the story of Tarzan and tell it like it was Pocahontas. The central relationship between Tarzan and Jane is constructed just like that of Pocahontas and John Smith, with an initial period of misunderstanding (in this case comedic) giving way to a vital knowledge of each other's cultures. Clayton effectively stands in for Radcliffe, as the blinkered oaf who manipulates the hero for material gain, and the Professor doubles up for Radcliffe's foppish sidekick who occasionally speaks a lot more sense than Radcliffe himself.
 
This misplaced adherence to formula spills over into other aspects of production. Phil Collins' inclusion on the soundtrack feels like a blatant attempt at recapturing the Oscar success of The Lion King (Elton John won Best Original Song for 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight'). Collins' songs are well-produced but completely bland and forgettable, as is Mark Mancina's Grammy-winning score. The whole production is forgettable, being so by-the-numbers that it never offends and never makes too great an impression.
 
Pretty much the only thing that makes Tarzan intriguing - or memorable for that matter - is that there are moments in which it does try to cut loose and carve out its own identity. Unlike The Great Mouse Detective, which never really hit its stride and made the very least of its prestigious source, there are a few select moments which are either very poignant or very funny.
 
The scene where Tarzan remembers his parents is genuinely sad, while the 'Trashing The Camp' musical number has hints of Snow White in its rhythm and comedic choreography. But both of these are never allowed to develop into more than moments, and as soon as they are over it's back to by-the-numbers box-ticking as though nothing had happened. Every time the film begins to show promise, it backtracks and takes the safe, boring or unfunny way out.
 
The performances in Tarzan reflect this feeling of creativity being forcibly reined in. None of the main performers are obviously bad, but neither do any of them make such an impression that they make the role their own. Tony Goldwyn and Minnie Driver are both passable as Tarzan and Jane, but nothing more: they make us chuckle but not laugh, smile but not grin. Nigel Hawthorne is phoning it in as Professor Archimedes (a possible nod to The Sword to the Stone) and Rosie O'Donnell is doing much the same - though she is at least annoying enough to be memorable. Most frustratingly, Brian Blessed is given so little to do that you'd almost say he was miscast. Clayton just isn't that memorable a villain, and Blessed isn't given the same room for manoeuvre that George C. Scott enjoyed on The Rescuers Down Under.
 
Tarzan is a boring disappointment from Disney, which looks as good as any of its counterparts but falls flat in all the place where it should soar. While the overall plot is less episodic than, say, The Jungle Book, it remains a film with several great moments which are so thickly smothered in Disney convention that they cease to be memorable. Disney would go on to make much worse films, but this remains one of the big let-downs of the Renaissance.


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NEXT REVIEW: Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

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