Tarzan directed by Kevin Lima &Chris Buck You Tarzan,You Suck Animated films, centralto 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'stech advances while accepting uninspired dramatic conventions. (That awful Beautyand the Beast-actually a step back for Disney-was hyped into an Oscar-nominatedevent.) The art of animation is stifled by a gullible public's naivete quotient-asif each new Disney film represented a new science, as if people never saw theTriumvirate (the 1940 Pinocchio andFantasia and the 1941 Dumbo),for Walt's sake! Even as Disney's new Tarzanshows mainstream animation developing improved mobility and color, its storyand thematic content lock down into commercial cliche: Abandoned child (human,lion cub, amphibian or mythological figure) adapts to new environment, displaysinnate virtue by opposing jaded villains, then proves "individuality"by pairing off to restart the cycle. It's the same kind of predictable plottingthat Star Wars dupes flatter themselves to call mythic. Tarzanshows only slight reform: fewer production numbers (Phil Collins, ugh!) andfewer cutesy animoos. But the amazingly quick, streamlined artwork is not matchedby dialogue or story sophistication. And from the way the media has alreadycanonized Tarzan, it's clear Disney hasn't yet loosened its grip on popularnotions of what animation can be. There's still no appreciation for a synthesisof 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 1993essay "Tracking the Sign of Tarzan: Trans-Media Representation of a Pop-Culture Icon," Walt Morton observed how Tarzan went from a 1912 novel to26 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: "Weexpect the iconic representation of Tarzan to be motivated by and analogicallyderived 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 onemedium to another, we see the specific devices a given medium favors."Today, that means Disney's nursery-school, nonerotic approach-the pop blandnessthat's only welcome when one already accepts diluted entertainment as the norm. Disney scrubs Tarzanof any offensive cultural residue; Burrough's inherent imperialist, racist sub-Kiplingideas don't arise in a setting purged of a black African populace. That thisis both a relief and a dodge will be difficult for conscientious people to perceivesince the film runs so smoothly as a piece of innocuous persiflage. The issuesof language and history that Robert Towne reclaimed in his own (uncredited)1984 adaptation Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes hasbeen subordinated to cartoon travesty. When the wrapper's this colorful youforget the candy is junk. Or as scholar Morton put it: "Visual form iselevated beyond verbal content. Moreover, the prioritization of what is seenover what is said continues in Tarzan films up to the present." That'sDisney's self-justifying cue for erasing the black African presence and languageissues altogether. This continues a process begun in The Lion King (whichused animals in place of African natives) and further distorted in the absurdCuba Gooding-Anthony Hopkins drama Instinct-the first new movie to beset in Rwanda since the civil war, yet never mentioning its genocidal atrocitybut focusing on a transposed white-for-black man's search for his spiritualroots. Disney's method is to makemindlessness merry. The early scenes of Tarzan's human family shipwrecked inthe jungle, making a Swiss Family Robinson-style home, then falling victim tonature's predators uses charming Human-to-Ape family contrasts. Nothing Darwinianbut very cannily Disney. The human family's destruction is cleverly symbolizedby its portrait in a cracked picture frame-they all have Keane features, a meta-stylizationthat posits Disney graphics as "real." The ingenious stylistic leapis Disney's most inveigling prestidigitation. Some weeks it's only animatedfilms that offer the pleasures of design, composition, color. (In a John Saylesculture, critics rarely notice how stiff and uninspired most movies look.) Tarzan'sblue-green jungle in background and foreground (with lizards and other tinyanimals 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 mostsuccessfully vaudeville of the Disney toon features). Cohering its visual schemeto vines, tree trunks, branches, leaves and blue night air-a Maxfield Parrishdarkness-Tarzan presents a more credible wonderland than in fairytaletoons. Yet each scene parades a new delight: purple hippos, bats with red brake-lighteyes, blue butterflies with black-dot wings and clay-pink elephants. The jungleimpression displays a Crayola box abundance. Tarzan himself is the film'smost successful element. Not for the Sesame Street morality of the "Whyam I different?/Hearts are the same" homilies, but the sheer, physicalimpudence of his new image. Burroughs wrote: "His straight and perfectfigure, 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. Withthe noble poise of his handsome head...he might readily have typified some demigodof a wild and warlike bygone people of his ancient forest." But Disney-ina shift from representational flatness to sketchy impressionism-goes for action-cartoonwit. (Jane and the typical effete Disney villain Clayton are drawn conventionally.)Tarzan is the first cartoon human who moves anatomically. His muscles bulgein a different style from the animal figures. He has wide feet and hands (asif raised shoeless and dexterous) plus a Kirk Douglas yelp when angry. And inmoments of wild movement-feet jumping along vines in slalom angles-Tarzan'slimbs bulge and stretch. The image isn't neat and pretty like regular Disneytoons, but ephemeral, recalling muscular doodles, and this gives Tarzan thecasual feel of less deliberated, personal etchings-animation freed up. Swinging through the jungleprovides Tarzan's best moments. The animators suggest Spielberg editingand zest via ski-slope trajectories and dizzy/witty movements currently complementingTom Tykwer's vivacity in Run, Lola, Run (which also features some roughhouseanimation). Slapstick rules when, instead of showcasing another sub-Broadwayproduction number, one sequence features the jungle animals invading a desertedhuman camp-a wordless Gorillas' Gavotte. But this isn't quite a breakthrough.If anything it recalls the harrowing and imaginative animal purge in Babe2-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 weekdayafternoon cartoons. On the big screen, the Babe movies (also a technologicaladvance) epitomize the narrative breakthrough Disney hasn't been able to accomplish.Despite technical innovation, Disney has become standard-bearing by holdingdown the nursery line. Celebrating this domesticated Tarzan so soon afterthe shocking dismissals of The Prince of Egypt only proves people's insistenceon 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 hieroglyphicmontage of Moses' psychological crisis: He intuits then discovers his real heritage,learning the history of Jewish enslavement and genocide through wall paintingsin the Pharaoh's palace. Of the film's many impressive sequences, these animatedhieroglyphs were-ironically-the only example of cartoons advancing as a narrativeart. Disney's new Tarzan, though splendidly executed, reveals no truth;its "artistry"-in the service of kid-friendly slapstick-is simplya high gloss on an old technique. DreamWorks' animators simulatedEgyptian style and motifs (difficult enough) then doubly conceptualized theeffect: The Pharaoh's glyphs could be read and experienced. A stone-texturedbackground was painted into the images so that the typical multiplane use ofa camera gliding over the cels gave an awed impression of physically approachingthe hieroglyphs. As they began to move-in Moses' anxious imagination-a new dimensionwas added to graphic language. The Prince of Egypt broke through obscurelinguistics; the animators treated language as a living, moving form. They dramatizedits message and its style as if deciphering a code, rediscovering the valueand potency of handcrafted art. The harsh historical depictions that awakenMoses to his destiny were also a surprising justification of animation's serious potential. Viscerally effective, theslanted, geometric movements took on a forced (stormtrooper) rhythm. Thoughit went by quickly, it was unforgettable. Biblical Middle Eastern history wascharacterized ideologically-a fact overlooked by those who complained the moviewasn't Jewish enough. By complexly analyzing pictographs for ancient and contemporarymeaning, The Prince of Egypt transcended ethnic point-scoring.Indeed, the hieroglyphic nightmare-a whopping deconstruction metaphor-was aboutthe way art and language are used as political record-keeping and mythic commemoration.One culture's dominant form of expression was apprehended and interpreted forempowerment and enlightenment. It was sufficiently critical and appreciative.Compared to the Egyptian mumbo jumbo that passes for entertainment in TheMummy, the art/politics amalgam in The Prince of Egypt was a modelof ecumenical rectitude. For anyone who saw ThePrince of Egypt, Tarzan's delights shouldn't be enough. Due to criticalignorance, that towering hieroglyphic sequence-what should be DreamWorks' writingon the wall for the art's silliness-won't be an immediate model for mainstreamemulation. Its visual and intellectual excitement is being drowned out by aTarzan roar. Clipped Riot goin' on. Why StrandReleasing matters is well demonstrated in the Museum of Modern Art's June 28showing of Stonewall, the high-drama fictionalization of the 1969 gay-libriot that screenwriter Rikki Beadle Blair turns into a credible survey of oppression'spolitical, racial, romantic variety. It took intelligent people to tell thisstory without cliche and a principled company to distribute it-despite subsequentlyproven financial risk. The movie's unpopularity probably comes from refusinggay pop stereotypes: Its foreground couplings and dramatic high points are too-black,too-strong; and its white characters are plausibly, troublingly conflicted-aboutthemselves, among themselves. (Duane Boutte and Bruce MacVittie's powerful liebestodmakes up for the no-budget riot recreation.) Feel-good sap like Edge of Seventeenappeals to 90s clone segregation while even Boys in the Band, a filmfrom that Stonewall summer, simply doesn't go where Blair and director NigelFinch 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.
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