Tarzan and George of the Jungle (review)

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Untamed Youth

A lost child left to fend for himself is rescued by gorillas and raised as one of their own: Inspired concept that allows for exploration of what it means to be human? Or incredibly silly idea that deserves about as much respect as any given episode of Jerry Springer? Actually, it’s both.

Noble savage
A painting can often be more “true” than a photograph. Disney’s newest showpiece, Tarzan, has now proven that animation can be more true than live action.
The film opens dramatically, with a wooden sailing ship burning and sinking in rough seas, stranding a Victorian couple and their infant son on a remote island. The sequence is gorgeous in its ferociousness, and after it, my friend leaned to me and whispered, “I just got that Disney rush.” What he meant was that same feeling that The Lion King‘s “Circle of Life” opener or the “Be Our Guest” scene in Beauty and the Beast aroused: a delicious prickling on the back of the neck and tears of sheer joy at knowing that you’re witnessing something truly transcendent, that this is a little piece of perfection on the screen.

While as a whole Tarzan doesn’t quite reach the pinnacle of Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, in one aspect it surpasses both: with the character of Tarzan himself. Tarzan has a much more realistic sensuality to him than any other male Disney character — probably any other human Disney character, period. (He’s so sensual, in fact, that I can now identify with Dana Carvey’s Garth, of Wayne’s World fame, who “feels kinda funny” when he watches Bugs Bunny in a dress: Hey, it is actually possible to be turned on by a cartoon.) Ironically, what makes him seem so much more than a cartoon, so authentically human is an animalism that no flesh-and-blood actor could have portrayed.

When the human baby, left an orphan in a leopard attack that killed his parents, is discovered by Kala (voiced by Glenn Close, from In and Out), a bereaved gorilla who recently lost her own infant to the same leopard, he reaches out to her joyfully. The baby is, well, babyish, not a hint of Baby Herman precociousness about him; the gorilla is a wild animal, an instinctive creature, not idealized in any way. These two beings connect through their innate need for each other, illustrating a commonality between species that could never be replicated believably in any way other than animation.

But it’s the adult Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) who’s truly not like anything we’ve seen in a Disney movie before, and could never have seen in any live-action adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic story. With strong knuckles and overdeveloped thighs, this Tarzan moves like an ape, loping along on both hands and feet. Our animated Tarzan doesn’t so much swing through the jungle as surf the trees, in ways no actor could and with a speed that’s also new to Disney movies. When Tarzan kills the dreaded leopard and holds the cat’s body over his head triumphantly, he yells that holler we all know, and Goldwyn makes it sound new. This Tarzan has an untamed beauty, a savagery that’s as thrilling as it is dangerous — he’s wild not in the negative sense that we often apply to the term, but in a way that implies that he’s tapped the undomesticated essence of what it means to be human. And that essence turns out to be the same as that of the gorillas: Eat, sleep, play, defend loved ones. Tarzan is both human and gorilla, and demonstrates that there’s not much difference between the two.

While Tarzan himself breaks new ground for Disney, the rest of the movie is standard issue, though nicely done. The heroine, Jane (Minnie Driver, from Good Will Hunting and Grosse Pointe Blank), is more liberated than most, but she’s still trailing around after her goofy father, Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne, from Amistad). Their guide and protector on their safari to study gorillas, Clayton (Brian Blessed, from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), is the typical Disney baddie, though with an unexpected touch: He looks suspiciously like Walt Disney. Phil Collins’s music has taken some drubbing, but I rather liked it, especially in the scene in which the gorillas, having stumbled across the humans’ camp, improvise a percussive tune by banging on a typewriter, breaking dishes, and bashing pots and pans — Collins is obviously still a drummer at heart.

Tarzan cribs a lot from Beauty and the Beast: Clayton is reminiscent of Beauty‘s meanie, Gaston, and the inevitable final confrontation between Tarzan and Clayton is very like the Beast and Gaston’s atop the castle amidst rain and lightning. But the Disney folks behind the scenes know the debt they owe: One hilarious reference to Beauty makes the rest forgivable.

Tarzan’s gorilla friend, Terk (Rosie O’Donnell), finds herself unable to say no to him — “with the face and the eyes,” she moans, he’s irresistible. I found him irresistible, too.

Silly savage
“George of jungle,” as he calls himself, is pretty winsome, too, in his own goofy way. With his elastic face and obvious willingness to look like a complete idiot onscreen, Brendan Fraser is practically a living toon. And from the wackily animated opening credits, hinting at its roots in television cartoons, to its hyperbolic narrator, the live-action George of the Jungle is more cartoony than the animated Tarzan. And that’s just fine.

Does the plot even matter? Lost as a baby in a fantasy African mountain forest — where Asian orangutans, New World monkeys, and savannah lions mix with a talking ape and an elephant who thinks he’s a dog — George (Fraser, from Gods and Monsters and The Mummy) was raised by said talking ape, Ape (John Cleese, from The Out-of-Towners and Fierce Creatures) and has never seen another human. Never, that is, until ditzy American tourist Ursula Stanhope (Leslie Mann, from The Cable Guy) — “the perfectly permed heiress,” the narrator (Keith Scott) informs us — tromps through. George is at first upset to discover his true roots — “You mean, Ape and George not brothers?” — and thinks Ursula is a “funny lookin’ fella,” but soon enough he’s madly in love with her and asking Ape’s advice on making her his “mate.” Ape’s advice involves “leaping about and hooting in a dominant fashion,” which is, needless to say, pretty funny to watch.

Though Fraser is certainly as tasty in his loincloth as Tarzan is, that’s not what makes him the best thing about George of the Jungle. In the notes I jotted down while watching George, I wrote “Brendan: utterly charming,” which is exactly the way I described him in my review of The Mummy, so I have to find a new way to describe his screen persona. I already used winsome, so how ’bout: appealing, delightful, agreeable, refreshing. Fraser is unself-consciously sweet and unrestrained as George, whether he’s conspiring with a monkey friend to pull a little practical joke or running carelessly naked around Ursula’s apartment back in San Francisco. Naïve but honest and good-hearted, this “Tarzan wannabe” is an overgrown child in the best possible way: His sense of childlike wonder at the world is not spoiled by a childish petulance or meanness.

George has more to recommend it, too. Ursula’s fiancé, Lyle Van de Groot (Thomas Haden Church), “blond-haired baboon” that he is, gets lots of delicious comeuppance. Cleese hits the perfect note as the put-upon Ape, who — on top of his unlikely penchant for chess, painting, and gourmet cooking — never lets his exasperation with George get the better of him. And though George of the Jungle does suffer from the toilet humor that passes for comedy these days, in what other movie will you see a capuchin monkey give a high-five to an elephant?

viewed at a public multiplex screening

George of the Jungle
viewed at home on a small screen

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