Hollywood and Vine

Disney's Tarzan swings for evolution but slouches toward the primitive

After 47 Tarzan movies, what more could the screen possibly have to say about the über-ape-man? Since 1918, when he first swung onto celluloid in Tarzan of the Apes, Tarzan has learned English (and a smattering of Latin); found a mate; spawned a son; matched wits with warriors, amazons, Bolsheviks, green goddesses, and she-devils; and traveled everywhere from New York to India. But not until now has he popped skate-punk moves in a computer-animated virtual jungle, with Phil Collins crooning him on. And still we await Tarzan's last word on the thorny nature vs. nurture question. Does our animated alpha male alight on the side of cultural relativism or moral essentialism?

Well, this is Disney, alas. And true to Uncle Walt's puritanical legacy, the studio has managed to mush a visually stimulating adventure into a formulaic morality play. The 3-D background for this dull fable--created with a "Deep Canvas" technique that results in a kind of Omnimax effect--does make for evocative megaflora, an aerial maze of swooping trees and swinging vines. In this jungle he calls home, Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn)--a.k.a. the Son of Man--matures amid gorillas that adopt him after a leopard kills his biological parents. His identity crisis peaks with the arrival of Jane (Minnie Driver) and her eccentric father, Professor Archimedes Q. Porter (Nigel Hawthorne), whereupon Tarzan must weigh the claims of heredity vs. environment, choosing between human love and jungle freedom--or, if you like, between nuclear domesticity and communitarian commitment.

Since pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan in 1912, generations of Americans have come of age following his tracks through 23 best-selling novels and four dozen films, as well as countless comics and radio shows. While neither literary merit nor cinematic artistry can explain Tarzan's enduring popularity, the 20th-century audience's everlasting appetite for manly heroes can. While Burroughs's superman was violent and virile--the perfect antidote to overcivilized Victorian men--Disney's new age hero is a dreadlocked, buff-bodied, surfin'-safariing, tree-huggin' mama's boy. In a way, Tarzan is the fantasy diplomat, serving somewhere on the manly scale between a gun-toting wrestler and a wimpy professor. (If Burroughs looked to big-stick-shaking Teddy Roosevelt for his manly model, Disney could have found its masculine prototypes in Minnesota politics.)

Nowhere is the lesson in manhood more pointed than when Tarzan faces off against Clayton (Brian Blessed), the bellicose big-game hunter who taunts, "Go ahead, shoot me. Be a man."--to which our hero, throwing down his firearm, retorts, "Not a man like you." (Some have surmised that Tarzan favors shooting from the hip: Witness the furor over the plastic action figurine, based on the notion that the jungle boy appears to be masturbating when he moves his arm.) In some ways, Tarzan is whatever you want in a man. As Goldwyn told the Toronto Sun: "This Tarzan is a really masculine character, a really potent man, yet he's utterly devoid of machismo." Indeed, he's the man for all ages: the Fifties' jock, the Sixties' hippie, the Seventies' swinger, the Eighties' corporate kingpin, and the Nineties' Promise Keeper all rolled into one.

Oh, yeah--and the timeless patriarch, too. Between Tarzan and Instinct, Disney's other paean to papahood this summer, big daddies are getting a big-screen boost. To be fair, while the latter Oedipal drama dispenses with its mother in a minute, Tarzan puts its gentle monkey-mama (Glenn Close) on a pedestal, focusing on the intense mother-son bond that evolves between Kala and her foster charge. But, à la The Lion King, Tarzan's plot revolves around a potentate and his male heir, who must prove his capacity (or should I say instinct?) for leadership.

As for our hero's comely companion: Who wouldn't applaud when Jane sheds her Victorian gloves and corset for a free-and-easy jungle bikini and a life out on a limb? Some feminist viewers have praised Maureen O'Sullivan's Thirties and Forties movie Jane as a sexual go-getter who conquers a passionate jungle stud (Johnny Weissmuller). According to Salon's Stephanie Zacharek, who reads Tarzan movies as erotic fantasies for women, O'Sullivan's heroine "doesn't keep the guy around just because he knows which berries are safe to eat." Not surprisingly, Disney has edited out any such sexual charge--that is, except for some gloveless hand-holding. (Which raises the question: Why does Disney deem violence appropriate for children but not a little good old-fashioned lust?) Nevertheless, Driver does lend her Jane an independent voice. "Jane is not the sort of 'damsel in distress' that we've seen in the other Tarzan films," claims Driver in the press kit. "She's very adventurous, funny and gutsy and I like those qualities in women." So does our gentle warrior.

Luckily for Disney, Tarzan also loves movies. In 1912, readers cherished the moment when Tarzan teaches himself to read and write; illustrated primers and dictionaries were his surest means to a "civilized" life. Here it's the professor's zoetrope (a magic lantern that creates moving images) that most fascinates the wild child. The obvious message is that movies--not books, mirrors, telescopes, maps, or even his mother's loving gaze--offer Tarzan the best reflection of himself and his place in the world. In other words, the hero learns that all over the world there are, per Phil Collins, "strangers like me."

If the orphan child realizes his connection to places far, far away, Disney also exhibits its own global strategy: to make strangers like us. On a preparatory research trip to Uganda, Tarzan's supervising animator Glen Keane was shocked to find an African child uncharmed by his arts. "I'd found one of the last places on Earth that no one had heard of Mickey Mouse," he told the Edmonton Sun. In turn, Tarzan's makers have managed to find a mythical place in African history where there are no Africans. The good news is that we've been spared the usual assortment of cartoon cannibals and pygmies (the sort that stalk the pages of Burroughs's novels). But presenting the continent as one big zoo isn't much of an improvement. And as a savvy junior-high social-studies teacher pointed out to me, Disney gives new meaning to misappropriation by making its monkeys "tribal" musicians who play European (!) instruments in a scat-style number that the press kit describes as a "jungle jam session."

Meanwhile, Disney's typically homogenous "family values" come to Tarzan's rescue (and Tarzan's), as the ape-man takes his place as the protective head of an extended family. Compared to the likes of The Jungle Book, this may be the best of Disney's animated breed, but the new and improved Lord of the Jungle still prompts the question: Why does Uncle Walt's Magic Kingdom consistently pick from the very worst that American pop mythology has to offer? Tarzan is pretty good as far as colonialist fantasies of Africa go--but I'm not holding my breath for cartoon versions of Huck Finn or Harriet Tubman.

 

Tarzan is playing at area theaters.

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