Disney's The Lion King, one of the studio's most popular films ever, contained a streak of xenophobia that bordered on the fascistic. Think about it: The effeminate usurper of a hereditary title pollutes the leonine kingdom by integrating the hyenas -- creatures with ethnic voices -- into the pride. Late in the movie, there's a shot of an army of hyenas goose-stepping; clearly someone working on the picture was alert to the subtext and decided it would be wise to distract us by sneaking the jackboots onto the wrong paws.
Given the almost Aryan mythos of The Lion King, one would expect Tarzan, Disney's newest excursion into the jungle, to drip with upper-class entitlement and subliminal racism. The source material is from Edgar Rice Burroughs, who may just be the least politically correct of popular American writers. His 1914 novel Tarzan of the Apes, and most of his other works, are full of gushingly described brawny white heroes chastising swarthy savages and ravenous beasts, and not much separates the two kinds of enemies. Blacks are either fierce cannibals or faithful retainers, and women, whether pure or seductive, are swooning damsels.
Like many Americans (still), Burroughs was also dazzled by the idea of English nobility, and Tarzan of the Apes hinges on the conception that if you take a titled British lord and abandon him as a naked infant in the wilds of darkest Africa, he will just naturally, by dint of his inherent superiority, become Lord of the Jungle. Yet somehow hardly any of this sensibility carries over into Disney's Tarzan. And, oddly, this is a bit disappointing, since along with Burroughs' obsessions, much of his passion has also been drained out of the story.
The biggest letdown in this Tarzan is the handling of the apes. In the novel, our hero's parents are marooned on the African coast by mutineers (swarthy, of course). Both soon die at the hands of Burroughs' fanciful notion of gorillas: The boy's delicate mother succumbs simply from fright, and his father is mauled to death by Kerchak, the ferocious ape-clan ruler, who is on the point of killing the baby as well before the infant is rescued by the she-ape Kala. Kala gives him the name "Tarzan" -- "White Skin," in Burroughs' apespeak -- and raises and protects him.
It's been pointed out that mothers don't get much play in the world of Disney animated fantasy -- they're usually either absent altogether, as in The Little Mermaid, or else they're background figures, as in The Lion King. I had hoped that Kala's bottomless, courageous devotion to her foundling son might partly redress this gap. In Tarzan, even though Glenn Close was brought aboard to lend Kala her strong voice, the ape-mother still remains a recessive figure, and Kerchak, who feels the boy is a threat, is no longer so much a menace as he is a dad who just doesn't understand.
As science now knows the gorilla to be generally a peaceable creature, and in light of the appalling degree to which the species is endangered -- Kerchak's misgivings about interacting with humans have proved tragically sound for his species -- Disney's decision to retell the story without the "killer ape" calumny seems entirely reasonable. Burroughs, after all, never visited Africa. For that matter, no one should expect fidelity to all of Burroughs' pulpy ideas and plot twists. But this film reworks the novel's hoary theme -- a man becomes master of a dangerous world through superior breeding -- into an equally maddening modern formula. Did it really have to be one more tour of the Search for the Father's Approval?
Still, Disney's Tarzan is a fine entertainment value. It's beautifully made, drenched in deep, rich emerald, with sinuous tracking visuals driven forward by pleasantly African-flavored songs from Phil Collins. The characters just don't leap to life here as vividly as you want them to. The strongest of the vocal performances is by Minnie Driver, who gives a charming, non-syrupy reading to Jane. The title character, rendered with an appropriately impossible, sinewy physique, is voiced by Tony Goldwyn, who's as competent and generic as they come.
The villains are a leopard who never speaks and a great white hunter who, even with the magnificent pipes of Brian Blessed behind him, has no real personality. The comic relief comes in the form of the spunky young gorilla Terk and the fussy elephant Tantor, voiced by Rosie O'Donnell and Wayne Knight, respectively. It's Jar Jar Binks duty.
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