Tarzan (1999)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Extras: Music video, Behind-the-sceens footage, Read Along, Sneak Peek, Trivia, Trailer

I always try to be honest with my reviews, so let’s all be frank here. For several different reasons, Disney has not been the studio that would be ranked number one among DVD collectors. And for a while there, it seemed that they had no intentions of changing their tune. Well, it appears that those days may be over. With their recent additions of more <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> titles and the inclusion of <$DTS,DTS> audio tracks on selected releases, Disney has begun to catch up with the other studios in the realm of special features. And with the newly released "Tarzan", Disney takes more strides, giving us a great DVD with has some nice extras (and it’s just a preview of the 2-disc set which will be appearing in April). While some of the extra features may seem like kiddie-fare, this is still a great leap forward for the Mouse.

Like so many of the Disney animated features, "Tarzan" is based on a famous literary work, in this case being "Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The story opens with a family, a man, woman, and baby, being shipwrecked (off of the coast of Africa we later learn) and moving into the jungle. This story is intercut with the story of a group of gorillas, specifically Kala (voiced by Glenn Close) and Kerchak (voiced by Lance Henriksen), the group’s leader. We see a leopard attack the gorillas and kill some of the young. We then see the human family building a tree-house (hey, is this the "Swiss Family Robinson"?!) and living quite well in the jungle.

One day, Kala goes exploring in the jungle and hears a strange sound. She follows the sound and comes across the treehouse, which has been ransacked. Inside, she finds the baby. She also finds the leopard. After a harrowing battle, she rescues the baby and takes it back to the group of gorillas. Kala decides to raise the baby as her own and names it Tarzan.

We then see Tarzan as he grows up and fights to find his place among the gorillas. He befriends a smart-ass gorilla named Terk (voiced by Rosie O’Donnell) and an obsessive-compulsive elephant named Tantor (voiced by Wayne Knight). Despite the love of Kala, and the playfulness of his friends, Tarzan still feels different. That is, until Jane arrives.

The adult Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn) discovers Jane (voiced by Minnie Driver), her father Professor Porter (voiced by Nigel Hawthorne), and their slimy guide Clayton (voiced by Brian Blessed, who played Prince Vultan, the leader of the hawkmen in "Flash Gordon" (1980). I knew I recognized that voice!) exploring the jungle. After Tarzan rescues Jane from the terrors of the jungle, and thus, having his first contact with other humans, he realizes that he’s not a gorilla and must choose between the jungle or the world of humans. Meanwhile, Clayton is devising a plan to exploit both Tarzan and his gorilla family.
With the hit or miss nature of Disney’s animated output, I really didn’t know what to expect from "Tarzan", but I ended up loving the movie. The first ten minutes of the film are incredible and to be honest, the rest of the film never really lives up to their promise, but it’s still a great film. The opening featuring the shipwreck and Kala’s rescue of baby Tarzan takes place with no dialogue, simply Phil Collin’s soundtrack, and the effect is amazing. Despite the fact that you know Kala is going to rescue the baby, the battle between the gorilla and the leopard is very well done and I was on the edge of my seat. The way that this opening draws you into the film is similar to the beginning of "The Lion King", but instead of offering an emotional high at the beginning, "Tarzan" gives you an adrenaline rush.

This action-packed opening gives way to a film that barely takes time out to breathe. "Tarzan" is wall-to-wall action scenes, involving chases, fights, rescues, and vine swinging… lots of vine swinging. Granted, "Tarzan" is a little short on plot, but for once, that’s a good thing. I’m tired of seeing animated films in which, to quote Joe Bob Briggs, "the plot gets in the way of the story." I mean, these are essentially for kids, aren’t they? "Tarzan" is very easy to follow and only the most naive person on earth wouldn’t figure out that Clayton is evil and plans to hurt the gorillas, but in this film, none of that matters. "Tarzan" introduces us to likable characters (with the possible exception of Terk), and shows them doing interesting things. It may be simple, but it definitely works.

The "cookie-cutter" plot leaves the door open for some incredible animation. Disney has taken more strides in combining traditional animation with CGI footage, or in some cases, what appears to be live-action footage. Note the water beneath the row-boat at the film’s finale. The rowboat and its occupants are hand-drawn, but the water is CGI. Combined, this gives the film a subtly realistic feel. Also, there are the scenes of Tarzan "skating" through the jungle, which were shown in every preview. Some of these scenes are breathtaking, and the mind boggles at the work involved in them. The jungle setting has allowed the animators to bring in a wide palette of lush colors, besides just the green of the trees, giving the film a staggeringly beautiful look. Of course, some things never change when it comes to Disney animation, as all of the characters have huge eyes.

Disney Home Video’s DVD presentation of "Tarzan" features an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer of the film that is <$THX,THX> certified. The film has been <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.66:1 and the dimensions seem accurate. Surprisingly for Disney, there is no option for full-frame viewing. The picture is extremely clear and there are no obvious defects from the source print. The great colors that I mentioned before come through brilliantly in this transfer, with the deep blacks giving way to the varied hues of the jungle. Of the Disney animated titles released so far, I have no hesitation in saying that this is the best looking one.
You may have heard some rumblings concerning the <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtrack on "Tarzan". Yes, the soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 5.0, which means that there is no LFE bass track. While this may enrage some, this is the way the movie was presented even in theaters. Depending on your system, the bass is either redirected to the front channels and still comes across quite well, or is automatically channeled to your subwoofer. The surround sound on the DVD is fabulous, with the sounds of the jungle filling the room and the soundtrack sounding fantastic. I did not experience any problems with the left front and left rear speakers containing the same sounds as some have reported. Both speakers were working independently and producing the desired sounds. With the exquisite transfer and knock-out sound, "Tarzan" presented one of the best "home theater" viewings that I’ve ever had.

Besides the film itself, after most people saw "Tarzan" in the theater last summer, the thing that they couldn’t stop talking about was the trailer for "Dinosaur", which is included on the "Tarzan" DVD. "Dinosaur" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and looks and sounds great. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, this four-minute plus trailer basically shows the beginning of the film "Dinosaur", which is due this May from Disney. It shows you just enough to convince you that you have to see the film. Damn them! The theatrical trailer for "Tarzan" is also included on the DVD, and it is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.66:1. I know that there was at least one more teaser trailer (if not two) for "Tarzan" and it would’ve have been nice to see them on the disc. Then again, they’re probably saving them for the Collector’s Edition.

There are two extra features that deal with the soundtrack to "Tarzan". The first is a music video for the Phil Collins’ song "Strangers Like Me", which is featured in the film. This video is presented in Dobly 2-channel surround, and sounds disappointing after experiencing the dynamic stereo of the feature film. The other extra is a behind the scenes studio session with Phil Collins and the group N’Sync, as they perform the song "Trashin’ the Camp" from the film. As I am not a 13-year old girl, this feature did nothing for me, and the boys’ stuck up attitude didn’t help either.

There are two more extras, which are specifically aimed at the little ones. There is an interactive trivia game, which features multiple choice questions based on the film. The questions are easy to read and the graphics are colorful. The other feature is an interactive read-along. This gives the viewer the opportunity to read the story of the entire film, while viewing accompanying pictures. (This is like the "book & record" stories that they had when I was a kid. Man, am I old.) The viewer has the option of having the story read to them, or they can read it themselves. The drawback here is that if you choose to read to yourself, there are no sound effects. The DVD also features some DVD-Rom only features. There is a playable demo of the "Tarzan" action game, as well as links to "Tarzan"-related Internet sites.

And from the "We knew it was going to happen sometime" file, the "Tarzan" DVD features previews for upcoming video releases at the beginning of the disc, ala VHS rental tapes. This option can not be skipped by pressing the "menu" button, but rather one must press the "skip" button until the menu-screen is reached. The previews are for "An Extremely Goofy Movie", "The Fox and The Hound", "Toy Story 2" (although no release date is given), the "Tarzan" interactive PC software, and an ad for Disney.com. While I enjoyed "The Fox and The Hound" and "Toy Story 2" trailers, I hate the fact that I’m going to have to fight my way through these ads every time I want to watch this DVD.

While "Tarzan" is not my favorite Disney animated film (that honor will probably always go to "Beauty and the Beast"), for me, it ranks up there with "Mulan" (highly underrated) and "The Lion King". The film is fun and exciting from beginning to end, and while it does get violent at times (look for Clayton’s shadow. Once you see the film, you’ll know what I mean), it’s appropriate for most over the age of seven. The DVD of "Tarzan" is a great movie experience, offering both a superb picture and great sound. If you haven’t picked up this DVD, stop monkeying around and check it out.