and Chris Buck
Last month, Disney brought the studio executive, producer, directors, and lead animator of Tarzan to town to discuss their accomplishment: a rock ‘n’ roll version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. Despite hints that he might be coming, however, the press tour didn’t include the movie’s true auteur, Phil Collins. Of course, it could be argued that Collins isn’t due as much credit as Pete Townshend. For the album that makes this Tarzan possible is not No Jacket Required but Tommy.
The Disneyfied Tarzan has much in common with other animated features from the House of Mickey: talking animals, true romance, dead parents, a youthful protagonist, and an irksome comic sidekick. (This one has the voice of Rosie O’Donnell, and it doesn’t get much more irksome than that.) The significant difference is that—with one exception—the characters don’t break into song. In form, Tarzan is less a movie musical than a concept album, with Collins recounting the apeman’s story in a series of rock-operatic (with Afro-pop percussion) songs. The four numbers sung by Collins (one in duet with Glenn Close) are retro but rousing, slickly effective examples of Sensurround rock’s post-Tommy role as the new show music.
Directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck and scripters Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker, and Noni White have actually stayed close to Burroughs’ original story: Tarzan’s shipwrecked parents are killed (off screen but ominously) by a leopard, who also grabs the baby of gorilla mom Kala (the voice of Close). So the orphan is fostered by Kala and her mate, patriarch Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), who’s not taken with the furless tyke. For a moment, Tarzan becomes an adoption parable: “We’re exactly the same,” Kala tells young Tarzan. “Kerchak just can’t see that.”
Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) grows up—mostly in montage—with gorilla cousin Terk (O’Donnell) and pachyderm pal Tantor (Wayne Knight), and proves his worth to the clan by killing (again off screen) the leopard. Then the apeman’s life is convulsed by the arrival of dithering scientist Porter (Nigel Hawthorne), villainous guide Clayton (Brian Blessed), and Porter’s sexy daughter, Jane (Minnie Driver), who’s anxious to get out of her confining Victorian dresses and into a two-piece loincloth. In addition to braving the mystery of sex—a mystery to most of the film’s viewers, too, presumably—Tarzan must face Clayton’s gang of gorilla trappers.
Animation makes possible a few notable additions to Tarzan’s well-worn cinematic legacy: The hero can converse with both gorillas and humans, and move in a manner more simian than even Christopher Lambert could manage. Still, this vigorous, visceral Tarzan owes more to rock music and teen culture than to its fluid animation and computer-generated “Deep Canvas” backdrops. Inspired by his son’s skateboarding, lead animator Glen Keane envisioned Tarzan as a dreadlocked, knuckle-walking “tree surfer” who zooms along branches as if the soles of his feet were made of Fiberglas.
Interestingly, the movie depicts no African humans. After Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Mulan introduced a new generation of non-Euro Disney protagonists, Tarzan returns to the customary animation strategy of disguising ethnic characters as talking animals. (This less-than-proud tradition continues in Lucasfilm’s The Phantom Menace.) If Africa without Africans seems problematic for newly multiculti Disney, it makes the music of the Switzerland-dwelling Collins seem right at home: As he has been throughout his solo career, he’s the soul man for an all-white world.
The full title of Wim Wenders’ first feature is Summer in the City (Dedicated to the Kinks), and the director went on to make films that highlight the Troggs, Lou Reed, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Like most aging boomers, though, he subsequently drifted in a mellower direction. Revisiting the mode of his earliest work, Wenders’ 1994 Lisbon Story was mostly about the music on its soundtrack, but this time it was the upscale easy-listening style of Madredeus. Now Wenders has pursued a similar vibe to Havana, where the filmmaker’s sometime soundtrack-slinger Ry Cooder (Paris, Texas; The End of Violence) enlisted some Cuban old-timers to make an album, Buena Vista Social Club, that was a boomer smash.
Easygoing to a fault, Wenders’ documentary follows guitarist Cooder, his percussionist son, Joachim, and an array of previously long-forgotten Cuban musicians around Havana and off to concerts in Amsterdam and New York. Although Cooder has a resolute affinity for languid grooves and slip-sliding guitar tones, he’s not one of those gringos who arrives in town and starts telling everyone what to do. He lets things happen slowly, respecting the musicians and the moment. That’s Wenders’ usual method, too, so the film’s relaxed style matches the music’s leisurely gait. Those viewers who love this music will probably be delighted; those who don’t will almost certainly not be converted.
Buena Vista Social Club opens with a musician telling an anecdote about Fidel Castro and Che Guevera playing golf, which is about as political as it gets, although this newly excavated music’s romanticism is definitely of the working-class variety. The film luxuriates in the gentle glow of a dozen over-65 musicians tasting a morsel of international success years too late to become cocky about it. This warmth is contrasted by the cold cinematography, all done with digital video (and shot by such star imagemakers as Lisa Rinzler, who photographed Three Seasons and Lisbon Story, and longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Muller). The washed-out, unnatural colors are sometimes a distraction, especially during the Amsterdam and New York concert sequences, but they have a faded-postcard look that seems appropriate for the Havana street scenes.
Filmed while Cooder was in Cuba in 1998 to produce a solo album for vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, the film unfolds after the success of the Buena Vista Social Club album. That means we don’t get to see the revelations that underlie that CD, although Wenders does occasionally set out on small voyages of discovery. (Most amusing is an inconclusive search for the location of the long-shuttered venue that provided the album’s name.) Most of this movie’s action occurs within the songs themselves, which unlock quiet but profound emotion in the people who sing them. These moments are so charming that it seems almost churlish to note that overall the film is a bit dull. CP