Over the years, Walt Disney Studios has cornered the market on the kind of animated films where baby animals grow and survive a series of (mostly) man-made traumas to end up as kings of the forest, jungle, or savannah, depending. From "Bambi" to "Dumbo" to "The Lion King" the formula has worked wonders for both audiences and Disney's bottom line. I don't want to knock it. I liked, even loved, some of them. I cried at "Bambi" and "Dumbo," and if they're ever revived I probably would again. Just as "The Simpsons" appeals to the inner teenager in us, the Disney films appeal to the inner child.
Still, if I'm to keep my membership in the Online Film Critic's Society, I have to look at these films as films and not just as bowdlerized fairy tales. So how does "Tarzan" play out? Let's start when his gorilla mother-to-be, Kala, rescues the infant Tarzan after his parents have been killed by a leopard. She has just lost her own baby to the leopard, and so it's a natural that she will adopt him. Kala is voiced by Glenn Close, and, like Bambi's and Dumbo's mothers, is very nurturant, except that apparently gorilla mothers do not actually nurse their babies, because instead of feeding him she sings him a Phil Collins song. Why? Let's guess that the Disney studio wouldn't allow breast feeding on screen, even in animation.
Then there is an admittedly virtuosic stretch of animation, combining traditional line-and-paint techniques with computer-generated imagery and movement, that takes Tarzan from infancy to adolescence, building a great head of steam as he follows the lead of the gorillas, learns to swing from vines, and ends with him surfing the roof of the jungle from tree to tree. He's a hunk, with the body of the young Arnold Schwarzenegger and a complete mastery of gorilla-speak.
Along the way he must confront the suspicions of Kerchak, the leader of the pack, so to speak, and Kala's traditional impregnator. (There is a good deal of anthropomorphizing here, as we never see so much as a hint of a gorilla's genitalia, nor even any cuddling. In fact, Tarzan from infancy always wears his high-cut loincloth. Should we wonder who sewed it for him?)
And then, as it must to all gorillas, comes the worm in the apple, the fly in the ointment, the -- well, you get my point. It is Jane (voiced by Minnie Driver) and her father, accompanied by, you guessed it, bad, bad, Leroy Brow-- no, no! it's a vicious white hunter, whom they thought was only a guide, and if you can't see trouble coming you shouldn't be allowed into a G-rated film. Daughter and father, of course, are good folks. And in fact Jane has the best-written part in the movie, with Driver doing heroic work to build a real person in the face of all those clichés. Rosie O'Donnell, who seems to be on call for every wisecracking Brooklyn-kid part in the business these days, voices Terk, Tarzan's gorilla playmate.
A couple of the songs are worth hearing more than once, certainly candidates for that lowest-of-the-low Academy Awards category of best movie song, but fortunately only one of them is sung by an on-screen character.
The film does have the not-inconsiderable virtue of making life among the gorilla band believable, and it doesn't overplay the stereotypes or stretch the plot too thin. At the screening I attended, a hundred children of all ages were totally immersed in the film. It should be a good restorative for Disney's fortunes.