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by: Scott Renshaw

The opening ten minutes of Disney's TARZAN represent as gripping and mature an example of animated film-making as I've ever seen. Underscored by the urgent rhythms of the Phil Collins song "Two Worlds," the sequence depicts two families in Africa: a human couple and their infant son trying to rebuild their lives after being shipwrecked, and a pair of gorillas with their own new baby before a leopard attack takes the young ape's life. Shortly thereafter, the grieving gorilla mother Kala discovers the orphaned human baby -- its parents also slain by the leopard -- alone in the wreckage of their shelter. Only after another close call with the leopard can Kala (voiced by Glenn Close) bring the baby boy into the gorilla community, much to the dismay of her mate Kerchak (Lance Henriksen).

That dark, dazzling prologue works not only on its own dramatic terms, but also at shifting expectations -- perhaps TARZAN could stand on its own as more than re-cycled motifs from THE JUNGLE BOOK and THE LION KING. The story eventually presents the adult Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) with a Simba vs. Mowgli dilemma. After spending his entire life trying to convince Kerchak that he belongs with the gorillas, Tarzan encounters other humans for the first time: slightly dotty ape researcher Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne); Clayton (Brian Blessed), Porter's jungle guide with an ulterior motive; and, of course, Porter's feisty daughter Jane (Minnie Driver). When romance blooms between Tarzan and Jane, the ape man faces a choice between returning to the society of humans and staying as defender of his ape family.

TARZAN continues Disney's impressive streak in recent years of incorporating more serious themes into its animated features. There are moments when it's easy to forget you're watching a film marketed at kids, from the effective interpersonal moments (energized by Driver's charming vocal performance) to the twist on the obligatory musical numbers that turns most of them into transitional bridges. The animation itself feels more grown-up, even when the flashy "Deep Canvas" technology turns a trek through the trees into a ready-made theme park ride. Where its animated features are concerned -- and its live-action kid flicks, notoriously, are not -- it's clear Disney genuinely cares about creating complete, resonant stories.

It's also clear that Disney cares plenty about making sure the cash cow isn't cut just for the prime rib audience. There are Kids' Club burgers to be sold as well, which means comic relief that's a relief only when it goes away. Sucking up valuable screen time are two pals for Tarzan, his spirited cousin Terk (Rosie O'Donnell) and nervous elephant Tantor (Wayne Knight). Both characters, plush-toy cute though they may be, feel like tacked-on creations contributing a slapstick silliness the story just doesn't need; the pointless show-stopper "Trashin' the Camp" in particular seems to belong in another film entierly. Even the nasty Clayton is out of place, adding an external conflict only because tradition has dictated it. There's nothing wrong with Disney making purely amusing kiddie fare like HERCULES and ALADDIN. There's also nothing wrong with letting the deeper stories be deep.

The issue isn't whether TARZAN should have been plodding and somber, because it's clear that the core narrative could provide all the entertainment a viewer of any age could want. There's plenty of humor in the interactions between Tarzan and Jane, and plenty of adventure in Tarzan's various encounters with jungle beasts. TARZAN is a solid film, stronger in its basic filmmaking elements than most wide-release films, but it might have been a spectacular one instead. Disney will never go broke relying on the successful Disney animated formula, and they'll continue to turn out largely enjoyable family films. They'll also have trouble breaking free to make a stirrin


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