Tarzan II

For years Disney has been chop-shopping their classic animated films, stripping them of everything valuable and packing what was left into low grade, low budget, straight-to-video sequels. They’ve finally begun to realize that it didn’t have to be that way, but alas, too little too late. As the legacy that was Walt Disney’s hand drawn feature film animation department fades away into entertainment oblivion, one of their final products comes closer than its predecessors to being a decent sequel. There’s a fleeting moment in Disney’s animated Tarzan where the boy, raised from infancy by his adoptive ape parents, instantly grows into the vine-swinging, jungle-yodeling man. There are about twenty years of lost storytelling in there somewhere. Some would be happy to leave those up to the imagination, but since Disney felt compelled to create a sequel they plundered those missing years for a story from Tarzan’s childhood. Tarzan II offers a glance at some of the challenges the young boy faced growing up in a world where he just didn’t fit in.

As hard as he may try, young Tarzan just can’t keep up. He’s not as fast, not as agile and certainly not as welcome as the other young apes in the clan. When the apes come to believe Tarzan has died in a tragic accident caused by his short-comings, most of them somberly conclude that they are better off without him. Tarzan overhears those mutterings and decides to strike out Simba-style to escape the shame and discover a place where he can truly belong. His adventure is only beginning when an encounter with the mythical monster Zugor lands him in a place where no young ape, or young human, belongs.

Tarzan II takes young Tarzan through a series of low stakes adventures that are chock full of reaffirming messages for younger viewers. The story is an oddly-meshed combination of The Lion King and “Are You My Mother” with Tarzan and other characters figuring out who they are, why they need each other and how they fit into that quirky collective we call a family. While the movie is geared towards kids and doesn’t have the broad appeal of its precursor, it’s not completely unentertaining for grown-ups. The lessons ring true without being overly trite and the comedy is clever enough to earn a few chuckles from a more mature audience.

If nothing else, adults will be able to enjoy the voice-acting talents of one of the most impressive all-star casts to ever grace a Disney animated sequel. Glenn Close and Lance Henriksen reprise their roles as Tarzan’s simian parents Kala and Kerchak. The “bad-guys”, an outcast mother ape Mama Gunda and her two brutish, dimwitted mama’s boys Uto and Kago are perfectly cast, played by Estelle Harris (you know, George’s mother from “Seinfeld”), Ron Perlman and Brad Garrett. The biggest surprise, and biggest pleasure, is hearing George Carlin voice the grumpy ape who both despises and mentors the young Tarzan. It’s a perfect fit for the man who has balanced his career between “Shining Time Station” and ranting over those silly seven words.

Voice talent isn’t the only thing going for Tarzan II. Music man Phil Collins returns with some of the classics songs we’ve come to love from the first film and a few new tunes for good measure. Also present is the dazzling visual style that brought to life the jungles and animals of deepest Africa in the original movie. The artistry makes it exciting to watch Tarzan’s first discovery of the vine swing and tree branch surfing. While not quite up to par with the original film, the animation is still stunningly beautiful and far superior to anything enjoyed by other Disney sequels.

In no way should my partially-glowing praise be mistaken for approval. I still think it’s a pity that Disney repeatedly pillages its classic stories and characters for shameless sequels. That said, this is the worthiest successor I’ve seen yet. Had the story been one of a teenaged Tarzan struggling against more dangerous situations in his quest of self-identity, it might even have made for a really good feature film. As it is, I’ll take Tarzan II for the enjoyable kid’s movie it is and pray Disney doesn’t go for a Tarzan trilogy. Since Tarzan II is an out and out kid’s movie, the disc is equally aimed at the wee ones. The menus are chock full of cutesy cameos and silly surprises while the biggest features are the typical Disney DVD games.

The first feature to greet you is Fast Play, Disney’s effort to help parents out. Most discs will take you to the main menu, a boring place that is sure to leave younger viewers crying out for grown up assistance. This disc takes you straight to the movie with a short stop over in the previews sections, an exciting place that is sure to leave younger viewers crying out for grown-up gift giving.

The only bonus that will likely appeal to the over-ten set is a very short making-of-feature, Bringing the Legend to Life. The producers and cast humbly discuss what brought them to the table and what they hoped to achieve with the film. It even includes Lance Henricksen recording his one line. Most precious of all are the shots of talented animators hovering over their hand-drawn pages, a dying breed enjoying their final moments in the Disney studios.

It wouldn’t be a Disney-rific package without a music video from some child performer no one has ever heard of. In this case it’s a talented young girl named Tiffany Evans singing Phil Collin’s positive reinforcement song “Who Am I”. No doubt it will be appearing on the Disney channel every twenty minutes for the next six months. Look out Hillary Duff.

There is a game to be played and an interactive mini-pedia of African jungle animals to entertain and educate the kiddos. For something a little more involved, parents can turn on the “Tarzan Matter-of-Fact” feature which flashes colorful factoids and amusing anecdotes throughout the film.

All-in-all, the Tarzan II disc is just the kind of summer release for parents who need to kill time by hypnotizing their children. The movie is clever yet simultaneously silly enough to keep kids coming back for dozens of consecutive viewings. Should that get old there are enough kids-only bonus features to occupy their fifteen second attention spans until they’re ready for the next go round. Who needs to play outside in the summer anyway?