directed by Kevin Lima & Chris Buck
You Tarzan,You Suck
Animated films, central to this movie era’s technological cult, usually get praised despite their mediocrity. It’s as if people’s eyes were bigger than their brains. They worship Disney’s tech advances while accepting uninspired dramatic conventions. (That awful Beauty and the Beast—actually a step back for Disney—was hyped into an Oscar-nominated event.) The art of animation is stifled by a gullible public’s naivete quotient—as if each new Disney film represented a new science, as if people never saw the Triumvirate (the 1940 Pinocchio and Fantasia and the 1941 Dumbo), for Walt’s sake!
Even as Disney’s new Tarzan shows mainstream animation developing improved mobility and color, its story and thematic content lock down into commercial cliche: Abandoned child (human, lion cub, amphibian or mythological figure) adapts to new environment, displays innate virtue by opposing jaded villains, then proves “individuality” by pairing off to restart the cycle. It’s the same kind of predictable plotting that Star Wars dupes flatter themselves to call mythic. Tarzan shows only slight reform: fewer production numbers (Phil Collins, ugh!) and fewer cutesy animoos. But the amazingly quick, streamlined artwork is not matched by dialogue or story sophistication. And from the way the media has already canonized Tarzan, it’s clear Disney hasn’t yet loosened its grip on popular notions of what animation can be. There’s still no appreciation for a synthesis of Disney’s grandiloquence with Warner Bros. wit (the epochal Space Jam) or DreamWorks’ politics (the astonishing Prince of Egypt).
Tarzan deserves acclaim, but not veneration. A little hard-nosed contextualization is needed. In a 1993 essay “Tracking the Sign of Tarzan: Trans-Media Representation of a Pop- Culture Icon,” Walt Morton observed how Tarzan went from a 1912 novel to 26 sequels then “a successful national newspaper serialization (1914), the movies (1918), Tarzan radio shows (1931) and a newspaper comic strip (1929).” It was an early model of 90s multiple-markets exploitation. Morton noted: “We expect the iconic representation of Tarzan to be motivated by and analogically derived from the Tarzan character created in the [Edgar Rice Burroughs] novel. But if we look at the marginal differences created in moving the icon from one medium to another, we see the specific devices a given medium favors.” Today, that means Disney’s nursery-school, nonerotic approach—the pop blandness that’s only welcome when one already accepts diluted entertainment as the norm.
Disney scrubs Tarzan of any offensive cultural residue; Burrough’s inherent imperialist, racist sub-Kipling ideas don’t arise in a setting purged of a black African populace. That this is both a relief and a dodge will be difficult for conscientious people to perceive since the film runs so smoothly as a piece of innocuous persiflage. The issues of language and history that Robert Towne reclaimed in his own (uncredited) 1984 adaptation Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes has been subordinated to cartoon travesty. When the wrapper’s this colorful you forget the candy is junk. Or as scholar Morton put it: “Visual form is elevated beyond verbal content. Moreover, the prioritization of what is seen over what is said continues in Tarzan films up to the present.” That’s Disney’s self-justifying cue for erasing the black African presence and language issues altogether. This continues a process begun in The Lion King (which used animals in place of African natives) and further distorted in the absurd Cuba Gooding-Anthony Hopkins drama Instinct—the first new movie to be set in Rwanda since the civil war, yet never mentioning its genocidal atrocity but focusing on a transposed white-for-black man’s search for his spiritual roots.
Disney’s method is to make mindlessness merry. The early scenes of Tarzan’s human family shipwrecked in the jungle, making a Swiss Family Robinson-style home, then falling victim to nature’s predators uses charming Human-to-Ape family contrasts. Nothing Darwinian but very cannily Disney. The human family’s destruction is cleverly symbolized by its portrait in a cracked picture frame—they all have Keane features, a meta-stylization that posits Disney graphics as “real.” The ingenious stylistic leap is Disney’s most inveigling prestidigitation.
Some weeks it’s only animated films that offer the pleasures of design, composition, color. (In a John Sayles culture, critics rarely notice how stiff and uninspired most movies look.) Tarzan‘s blue-green jungle in background and foreground (with lizards and other tiny animals standing out as if in their own key light) creates a convincing atmosphere. It’s a whole other style from the buoyant pastels in Hercules (the most successfully vaudeville of the Disney toon features). Cohering its visual scheme to vines, tree trunks, branches, leaves and blue night air—a Maxfield Parrish darkness—Tarzan presents a more credible wonderland than in fairytale toons. Yet each scene parades a new delight: purple hippos, bats with red brake-light eyes, blue butterflies with black-dot wings and clay-pink elephants. The jungle impression displays a Crayola box abundance.
Tarzan himself is the film’s most successful element. Not for the Sesame Street morality of the “Why am I different?/Hearts are the same” homilies, but the sheer, physical impudence of his new image. Burroughs wrote: “His straight and perfect figure, muscled as the best of the ancient Roman gladiators must have been muscled, and yet with the soft and sinuous curves of a Greek god…a personification, was Tarzan of the Apes, of the primitive man, the hunter, the warrior. With the noble poise of his handsome head…he might readily have typified some demigod of a wild and warlike bygone people of his ancient forest.” But Disney—in a shift from representational flatness to sketchy impressionism—goes for action-cartoon wit. (Jane and the typical effete Disney villain Clayton are drawn conventionally.) Tarzan is the first cartoon human who moves anatomically. His muscles bulge in a different style from the animal figures. He has wide feet and hands (as if raised shoeless and dexterous) plus a Kirk Douglas yelp when angry. And in moments of wild movement—feet jumping along vines in slalom angles—Tarzan’s limbs bulge and stretch. The image isn’t neat and pretty like regular Disney toons, but ephemeral, recalling muscular doodles, and this gives Tarzan the casual feel of less deliberated, personal etchings—animation freed up.
Swinging through the jungle provides Tarzan‘s best moments. The animators suggest Spielberg editing and zest via ski-slope trajectories and dizzy/witty movements currently complementing Tom Tykwer’s vivacity in Run, Lola, Run (which also features some roughhouse animation). Slapstick rules when, instead of showcasing another sub-Broadway production number, one sequence features the jungle animals invading a deserted human camp—a wordless Gorillas’ Gavotte.
But this isn’t quite a breakthrough. If anything it recalls the harrowing and imaginative animal purge in Babe 2—and then Disney’s techno-magicians are sunk. Their more audacious tropes (having Tarzan mimic a shotgun crack or showing a hanging death as a shadow) don’t quite secure for animation the visionary daring of storybooks or weekday afternoon cartoons. On the big screen, the Babe movies (also a technological advance) epitomize the narrative breakthrough Disney hasn’t been able to accomplish. Despite technical innovation, Disney has become standard-bearing by holding down the nursery line. Celebrating this domesticated Tarzan so soon after the shocking dismissals of The Prince of Egypt only proves people’s insistence on insipidity. They don’t care that animation can be so much more.
“Truth Revealed,” the dream sequence in The Prince of Egypt, featured an innovative hieroglyphic montage of Moses’ psychological crisis: He intuits then discovers his real heritage, learning the history of Jewish enslavement and genocide through wall paintings in the Pharaoh’s palace. Of the film’s many impressive sequences, these animated hieroglyphs were—ironically—the only example of cartoons advancing as a narrative art. Disney’s new Tarzan, though splendidly executed, reveals no truth; its “artistry”—in the service of kid-friendly slapstick—is simply a high gloss on an old technique.
DreamWorks’ animators simulated Egyptian style and motifs (difficult enough) then doubly conceptualized the effect: The Pharaoh’s glyphs could be read and experienced. A stone-textured background was painted into the images so that the typical multiplane use of a camera gliding over the cels gave an awed impression of physically approaching the hieroglyphs. As they began to move—in Moses’ anxious imagination—a new dimension was added to graphic language. The Prince of Egypt broke through obscure linguistics; the animators treated language as a living, moving form. They dramatized its message and its style as if deciphering a code, rediscovering the value and potency of handcrafted art. The harsh historical depictions that awaken Moses to his destiny were also a surprising justification of animation’s serious
Viscerally effective, the slanted, geometric movements took on a forced (stormtrooper) rhythm. Though it went by quickly, it was unforgettable. Biblical Middle Eastern history was characterized ideologically—a fact overlooked by those who complained the movie wasn’t Jewish enough. By complexly analyzing pictographs for ancient and contemporary meaning, The Prince of Egypt transcended ethnic point-scoring. Indeed, the hieroglyphic nightmare—a whopping deconstruction metaphor—was about the way art and language are used as political record-keeping and mythic commemoration. One culture’s dominant form of expression was apprehended and interpreted for empowerment and enlightenment. It was sufficiently critical and appreciative. Compared to the Egyptian mumbo jumbo that passes for entertainment in The Mummy, the art/politics amalgam in The Prince of Egypt was a model of ecumenical rectitude.
For anyone who saw The Prince of Egypt, Tarzan‘s delights shouldn’t be enough. Due to critical ignorance, that towering hieroglyphic sequence—what should be DreamWorks’ writing on the wall for the art’s silliness—won’t be an immediate model for mainstream emulation. Its visual and intellectual excitement is being drowned out by a Tarzan roar.
Riot goin’ on. Why Strand Releasing matters is well demonstrated in the Museum of Modern Art’s June 28 showing of Stonewall, the high-drama fictionalization of the 1969 gay-lib riot that screenwriter Rikki Beadle Blair turns into a credible survey of oppression’s political, racial, romantic variety. It took intelligent people to tell this story without cliche and a principled company to distribute it—despite subsequently proven financial risk. The movie’s unpopularity probably comes from refusing gay pop stereotypes: Its foreground couplings and dramatic high points are too-black, too-strong; and its white characters are plausibly, troublingly conflicted—about themselves, among themselves. (Duane Boutte and Bruce MacVittie’s powerful liebestod makes up for the no-budget riot recreation.) Feel-good sap like Edge of Seventeen appeals to 90s clone segregation while even Boys in the Band, a film from that Stonewall summer, simply doesn’t go where Blair and director Nigel Finch dare to push their vivid history. This account of agitation as progress, made in 1995, was out of its time but that only makes it timeless.