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A Walt Disney Animated Film
88 minutes
Principal Cast
Tony Goldwyn
Wayne Knight
Brian Blessed
Nigel Hawthorne
Alex D. Linz
Young Tarzan
Glenn Close
Minnie Driver
Lance Henriksen
Rosie O'Donnell
Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the viewing.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed viewing could be this good.
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rick Norwood

In 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a novel titled Tarzan of the Apes. Creators inspired by Burroughs have tried to capture Tarzan on film, on radio and television, and in comic books and comic strips. The Disney Tarzan (****) is the most successful attempt to date.

The appeal is almost entirely visual. It would, I think, be improved by watching it dubbed into a language I do not understand, such as Russian or Japanese. From the first frame, a sailing ship in flames captures your imagination. To see Tarzan travel through the jungle like a skateboarder in the wilds of the Bronx or a surfer on a sea of trees is pure joy. Like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the music and pictures carry the story. Words are largely superfluous or intrusive. Perhaps in the 21st century, film will move further from drama and closer to opera.

Is it too late to save Tarzan? There were only a handful of people in the theatre on opening day. Too many bad Tarzan movies in the past, combined with the embarrassment we feel today about a White hero in Africa, may have killed any hope of popular success. But that does not keep us from delighting in the last(?) best Tarzan movie of them all, and the best Disney animation since The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Critics are comparing Tarzan to Disney's last big success, The Lion King, but the resemblance is superficial. The Lion King is pure children's story. In Tarzan, the children's elements, such as the funny elephants borrowed from The Jungle Book or the heavy handed anachronism of the animal's conversations, are intrusive, in the same way that the "cute" gargoyles in Hunchback were intrusive. They are a concession to the need for toys and tie-ins with fast food. The real story is savage and romantic.

Jane is delightful, the first Jane since Maureen O'Sullivan we can believe Tarzan would really fall in love with. The battle with the leopard is a high point. Jane's father, Professor Porter, is exactly as Burroughs pictured him, only not quite as silly. Less successful is the villain, Clayton. Burroughs knew that the most a villain can do is throw obstacles in Tarzan's path, and pitted Tarzan against nature. No mere villain is a match for Tarzan in a fight.

Tarzan of the Apes was written when Burroughs still had the idea that a writer was a person who used a lot of fancy words. Burroughs got better at writing as the years went by, (though he never could write dialogue). The middle Tarzan books -- Tarzan the Untamed, Tarzan the Terrible, and especially Jungle Tales of Tarzan and Tarzan at the Earth's Core -- are the best.

The Disney Tarzan has taken some liberties with the text. The opening has been dramatically shortened. The cabin by the sea has been replaced by the Johnny Weissmuller treehouse. Sabor is a leopard rather than a lioness. (In the magazine version of the original novel, Sabor was a tiger. Burroughs didn't find out until later that there are no tigers in Africa. The movie makes an in-joke reference to this bit of trivia when some elephants argue about whether piranha are native to Africa.) The apes have been turned into gorillas, Tantor into comic relief. The character Tublat, Kala's mate, has been combined with Kerchak, king of the apes. Terkoz has been shortened to Terk. Clayton is no longer Tarzan's cousin and Jane's betrothed. And the final conflict is now over captive apes rather than pirate treasure. The ending is completely different. The ending of the book is better.

It says something about adaptations that, in spite of all these changes, this movie is much closer to the book than any of the others. At least it treats the original with respect.

Tarzan has been adapted many times. By and large, the comic books and strips, and even the 1950s radio program, are better than the movie and television versions. Television in particular has fixed the image of Tarzan the Tree Hugger in the public mind. Probably the best Tarzan adaptation prior to this one was the comic strip by Russ Manning. Films have always fallen short, because Tarzan's jungle, like John Carter's Mars, is a fantasy world impossible to capture on film. In Disney's Tarzan, some very gifted artists have made a valiant attempt.

Like Hunchback, this is a great movie that would have been even greater if the forces of political correctness and commercialism had not been arrayed against it. It fights against them, but is unable to overcome them entirely. Burroughs' Tarzan is a naked savage who kills to survive in a savage world. Try to film that in 1999.

But the Disney Tarzan succeeds in capturing Burroughs' mythic hero, fantasy setting, and larger than life romance, and is true to Burroughs' main theme of noble beasts and brutal men.

Copyright © 1999 by Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.

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