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Good old formula

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Chris Buck and Kevin Lima

Written by Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White, based on the novel Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

With the voices of Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Glenn Close, Rosie O'Donnel, Brian Blessed

I’d like to be able to write a universal film review, which I would be able to use for each and every movie: “You’ll either like it, or you won’t, or some of both. Opens today.” My brilliant career as a film critic would be over.

Disney animated films are a notable exception as I could easily write a universal review which would apply to any effort from the Mouse House. Here’s my attempt at such universal review. I intend to reuse it as long as Disney keeps reusing their creative crutches.

* * *

[Tarzan] is the latest Disney film, and it firmly adheres to a tried, true, and occasionally tired Disney formula. It’s an animated adventure-musical, based on the story that was originally not intended to serve as a kids’ fodder, and thus, it had to be drastically re-written by the screenwriters. Speaking of kids’ appeal, I would recommend parents to be cautious: despite its G rating, there are a few intense scenes, and a few characters get killed off-screen.

The movie starts with the amazingly animated prologue, with Disney animators, as usual, topping their previous achievements. The film’s first five minutes are relentlessly entertaining, and paced with exhilarating speed. It’s too bad that after these five minutes the movie rarely returns to being as exciting.

The story concerns a young hero [Tarzan, voiced by Tony Goldwyn], who is growing up orphaned of his [father and mother], being taken care of by [animal] surrogate parents, [ African apes]. But the hero is tormented by the internal conflict: he wants to get [married/prove that he belongs/both].

So far, he spends his time in the lush, gorgeously drawn environment of [the jungle], accompanied by a cuddly comic relief sidekicks. At the sight of these sidekicks, the adults will cringe in abject pain, finding this brand of humor intensely grating and disruptive to the flow of the story; the youngsters will emit uncontrollable squeals of delight and will max out their parents’ credit cards during the next trip to the mall.

Anyway, the story really gets underway with the arrival of a cute and spunky love interest [Jane, excellently voiced by Minnie Driver] and a hulking and menacing villain [Clayton, voiced by Brian Blessed.] The former, in order to expand the film’s appeal beyond the core audience of families with little kids, [has really big breasts and/or spends the movie in a state of undress]. The latter is tall, has a formidable chin, speaks in basso profundo and has a propensity of sneering, scowling, and being needlessly vicious toward small defenseless creatures. Of course, he gets his just deserts by the end of the movie.

The story doesn’t really matter here; not only the happy end is certain in coming, but also the main character is surprisingly inert. Perhaps it’s because he is intended to serve as an audience surrogate, he doesn’t really do anything in the movie unless the circumstances force him to. From this point of view, it’s the villain who functions as a nominative protagonist. Otherwise, this villain is rather superfluous and doesn’t add much.

No, the story doesn’t matter; what matters is the world, and it’s realized almost to the point of live-action realism. The sequences that depict [Tarzan swinging on the lines and sliding down the tree boughs] are as viscerally exciting as anything else out there. The love story works even better, probably because its connection to the plot is merely tangential, and the movie is merely content to quietly let the romance blossom gradually.

The animation is, as usual, outstanding. The music, also as usual, is merely adequate, with the songs complementing the action at their best and grinding the same action to the halt at their worst. All of the songs are instantly forgettable after the movie is over, with the single exception of [not applicable].

Ultimately, it’s a solid, workmanlike effort, and in some aspects it frequently skirts brilliance. But the seams in the formula are even more visible than last time around, and it won’t be long until it might just stop working.

* * *

The scary part is that I don’t have much to add to this universal review. The new Deep Canvas technology which enables the camera to turn and twist in the hand-painted but three-dimensional world is excellent. The love story is more than usually affecting. The plot itself is a total loss. Tarzan is a good, solid, entertaining movie. I wish Disney would take a chance or two with their next outing. That final shot, though, is one of the most spectacular closing shots I’ve ever seen.