Review: Tarzan (Don HARLOW)


Movie by Edgar Rice BURROUGHS and Tab MURPHY

reviewed by Don HARLOW

   Tarzan of the Apes is a very old friend of mine; I inherited him from my parents, back when I was just a boy. For some years I ignored the two books about him on their shelves (The Return of Tarzan, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar -- see last year's Tarzan and the Lost City for a movie take on the latter story), but then one day my father brought home a second-hand copy of Tarzan of the Apes. I started reading it -- and I was hooked.

   It was an advantage I had that I learned about his life from the books, not from the very unfaithful Johnny Weissmuller and Lex Barker movies. I waited for years for somebody to do this life story. The 1984 Greystoke, with Christopher Lambert as Tarzan/John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, was supposed to be that movie. It wasn't. Now the Disney people have taken their swing at it, and have produced what we may call a "flawed masterpiece" -- but, I suspect, as minimally flawed as we can expect at this late date.

   I give nothing away if I repeat the basic plot here. John Clayton and his wife Alice are, together with their young baby, marooned on the coast of Africa. Clayton and his wife die or are killed, and the baby is adopted by Kala, a "great anthropoid ape" who has recently lost her own son. He grows up among the apes, becomes strong and quick, eventually rises to kingship of the apes, and then discovers his own kind in the persons of a group of Englishmen and Americans who are cast ashore at the same point on the coast. One of these is the beautiful young American, Jane Porter, with whom he falls in love, and whom he eventually marries (a point glossed over in the Johnny Weissmuller films). But he is doomed to never quite be sure whether he is a man of civilization or a beast of the jungle.

   A number of important actions and characters are deleted or changed significantly. One of the basic plot threads in the original story was Tarzan's learning about people through the medium of the books in his parents' cabin, books he learns to read from children's primers that they happened to have in their small portable library; this is omitted from the film, and Tarzan first sees his parents' cabin when he is fully grown. Lieutenant Paul d'Arnot, Tarzan's mentor in the ways of civilization, has disappeared. Of the second party of castaways, Professor Porter's amanuensis Mr. Philander and the black nurse Esmeralda have both disappeared -- no loss in the second case; the poor lady was a stereotype even in the days when the book was written -- and the ultra-civilized, generally likeable and in some ways tragic William Cecil Clayton -- the movie overlooks the fact that he was actually Tarzan's cousin -- has been transmogrified into the Great White Hunter Clayton, a sort of sneering version of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Kerchak, the ape tribal king, has been turned from an enraged killer into a conscientious, if somewhat prejudiced, paragon of wisdom, and Terkoz, the bull ape who gave Tarzan the scar on his forehead -- the one that turns crimson when he's enraged -- has become the cute though occasionally obnoxious little Terk, voice courtesy of Rosie O'Donnell.

   We also have to contend with some changes and deletions that have been forced on us by changing views of society and the world. First is the total disappearance of Mbonga and his village of cannibals. Pretty obviously, this owes at least something to Political Correctness. It is, however, justifiable by the fact that Mbonga's people, besides being Tarzan's first introduction to His Own Kind -- and a pretty annoying one at that -- existed primarily to provide Mbonga's son Kulonga, who killed Kala in the book; and the Disney folk for reasons best known to themselves decided to keep Kala alive. Perhaps, if Disney makes a sequel based on The Return of Tarzan, they will be happy to give us the noble Waziri instead.

   Second is the nature of the apes. In the original book, the anthropoid apes who raised Tarzan -- typical denizens of a jungle that, in Burroughs time, was believed to operate by The Law of the Jungle -- were blood enemies of the vicious, ravening Bolgani the gorilla, whom the boy Tarzan once fought -- and defeated -- with only a Popsicle Pete hunting knife scavenged from his parents' cabin. In the movie, the apes are gorillas, Jane Goodall gorillas, kindly animals with near-human ways who talk English among themselves until English-speaking humans come near, at which point they revert to meeps and beeps. Of course, they, too, are typical of their jungle home for Burroughs the jungle was death, but for Disney the jungle is fun.

   Well, given the constraints of both running time and societal attitudes, I'm not sure Disney could have done any better. The story, for all its changes, is relatively tightly plotted. The animation is excellent, and, I believe, largely computer generated (the credits at the end give a team for each major character, consisting largely of "keys" and "inbetweeners" -- key frames and tweening are an integral part of computer generated graphics). And the ending is a happy one for most concerned (not Clayton, whose similarity to Gaston does not end with his looks and behavior). All in all, I enjoyed the film, especially since I suspect that it is as close as we'll ever get to the definitive story of Tarzan.

Sendu demandojn kaj proponojn al

Don Harlow <>