Blu-ray Review: Disney's Tarzan (1999)

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Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan book series was a problematic choice of source material for Disney, but their gamble was rewarded with a sizable worldwide hit in 1999. In order to make Tarzan the classic literary property suitable for family consumption, certain elements needed to be sanitized. Actually the animal versus animal and animal versus man battles are surprisingly potent, but the depiction of an Africa uninhabited by Africans is troubling. By ignoring the racial politics of the source material, Disney inadvertently drew more attention to it. Though they surely didn’t intend it to be read this way, the Africa of Tarzan is a white man’s world and despite the largely Caucasian voice cast reading the animals’ lines, the subtext is unmistakable. The various apes end up standing in as ersatz indigenous “tribes.”

Tarzan 1 (380x225).jpgOf course, the filmmakers are primarily sympathetic toward the apes, which helps greatly to distinguish this Tarzan from the decidedly un-PC big screen adaptation of yesteryear. Though admirable in many ways, the old Johnny Weissmuller movies carry the stench of racism in their depiction of indigenous peoples. Here Disney has gone to great lengths to literally whitewash everything in an attempt to sidestep potentially messy charges of subliminal racism. Maybe the challenges inherent in adapting Burroughs’ themes were great enough that Disney should’ve thought again before tackling it. But it’s clear they couldn’t resist indulging in the visual treats that the milieu offered. As purely visual spectacle, Tarzan is great fun.

Tarzan 2 (380x227).jpgThe inclusion of Phil Collins songs, sung by Phil Collins, has proven to be a polarizing move. I come down on the side of admiring the songs as presented, a welcome variation on the Disney tradition of leaving the characters to sing the songs. Some people seem predisposed toward irrational hatred of Collins, but the handful of songs he contributes here work well for those willing to keep an open mind. Pacing issues hurt the first act. After he’s orphaned, the boy who will become known as Tarzan takes a little too long to grow up. The cutesiness factor is pushed past ten at times, especially whenever Rosie O’Donnell’s grating Terk is onscreen. But the action scenes, with the adult Tarzan surfing vines throughout the jungle, have held up incredibly well a decade and a half later.

The emotional conflict between Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn) and his adoptive gorilla father Kerchak (Lance Henriksen) is more interesting than the bond he shares with gorilla mom Kala (Glenn Close). Jane (Minnie Driver) is as dull a heroine as Disney has ever committed to the screen, and of course the mutual attraction between she and Tarzan is chaste enough for church. What’s most eyebrow-raising about Tarzan is the striking violence of its climax after English explorers threaten the peaceful way of life favored by the gorillas. It’s pretty exciting for older viewers, but might be a tad much the youngest Disney fans.

I’ll freely admit I didn’t detect any problems with the 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer upon first viewing. But I generally like to see what other folks are saying about any given Blu-ray presentation and I quickly found multiple sources reporting some significant artifacts. Sure enough, with closer scrutiny, I saw macroblocking, primarily in the fur of the gorillas. To my eyes, it’s most visible in the gray fur than any others. Much of the film looks terrific, especially if you don’t take the time to study the image so closely. In fact, I think the average viewer will be able to watch Tarzan without being distracted by artifacts. But once you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard not to focus on it. It’s too bad a quality control issue like this would hamper such a visually-strong film in any way.

The box lists DTS-HD MA 5.1 and again, upon first viewing I didn’t realize it wasn’t. Go to the “Set Up” menu and you’ll see the English language option is actually DTS-HD MA 5.0. Even without what could’ve probably been a booming low end, this mix is remarkably full bodied. The songs sound terrific, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your opinion of the Phil Collins tunes. The score, by Mark Mancina (who more recently scored both of Disney’s Planes films), is also pleasingly immersive. It’s a highly detailed surround, so active that you might also not miss the lack of subwoofer action.

Listed as “Classic” bonus features, the Tarzan Blu-ray adds nothing new to the mix, which may disappoint fans—especially considering 2014 marks the film’s 15th anniversary. Ported over from the previous DVD special edition, this new discs contains directors’ commentary, deleted scenes, various featurettes, and a slew of Phil Collins-related music material. The package also includes a standard DVD and iTunes-compatible digital copy. Ultimately a mixed bag in terms of both artistic and technical quality, Tarzan fails to register as a true Disney classic.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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