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Disney swings the right way in new animated film 'Tarzan'
Great cast, songs bring life to old Burroughs' tale

TARZAN -- *** 1/2 -- Animated feature starring the voices of Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Rosie O'Donnell, Brian Blessed, Glenn Close, Nigel Hawthorne and others; original songs by Phil Collins; based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs; rated G (animated violence, mild vulgarity); Carmike 12, Plaza 5400, Ritz and Villa Theaters; Cinemark Sandy Movies 9; Gateway 8 Cinemas; Loews Cineplex South Towne Center and Trolley Square Mall Cinemas; Reel Theatres.

There's finally a big-screen version of "Tarzan" that the entire family can go "ape" over.Excuse the awful pun, but that's probably the most apt way to describe the newest animated feature from Walt Disney Studios. Not only is "Tarzan" one of the studio's best recent efforts, it's also certainly the best cinematic version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' ape-man tales since Johnny Weissmuller first put on the loincloth.

This animated musical/adventure is extremely exciting, even thrilling at times. It's also funny and more than a little bit touching. And its underlying message -- one about the nature of man and animal, as well as familial relationships -- is one deeper than you'd expect in animated fare.

Still, there are a few times when it succumbs to some overly Disney tendencies, such as adding cutesy animal sidekicks. And it is somewhat violent, at least compared to the studio's other works.

But those are minor quibbles at best. Besides, this is possibly the most faithful (in terms of spirit, if not subject matter) cinematic adaptation of Burroughs' first published Tarzan work, the novella "Tarzan of the Apes."

The story follows an orphaned human infant who grows up believing he is an ape. After his parents are killed, the youth is brought up by a kind gorilla, Kala (voiced by Glenn Close), who lost a gorilla-child of her own.

And in spite of his obvious physical handicaps, Tarzan is gradually accepted by members of the tribe -- all except for its disapproving chief, the silverback gorilla Kerchak (the voice of Lance Henriksen).

While the now-adult Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn) continues his efforts to impress his surrogate father, he also feels a familiar twinge when he spies humans in the jungle. He also finds himself attracted to the Jane (Minnie Driver), the beautiful but clumsy daughter of scientist Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne).

Even though Jane and her father are content to leave the gorillas in peace, their guide, an adventurer named Clayton (Brian Blessed), has a more sinister plan in mind for the gentle beasts and their ape-like protector.

The level of animation here is at least as good as that in other Disney animated features, but it's fleshed out considerably by use of "deep canvas," a new form of three-dimensional, digitally created background that helps make the jungle itself a character in the film.

Speaking of character, the talented voice cast has lots of it, especially Driver, who is surprisingly funny and Goldwyn, whose strong voice is extremely appropriate. (Though the shtick of Rosie O'Donnell, who voices Tarzan's closest friend, the gorilla Terk, gets a little annoying.)

Also, the movie moves along at a breathless pace and its musical interludes are well-placed, particularly a series of songs written and performed by Phil Collins. They help convey the characters' emotions and move the story along without exposition.

"Tarzan" is rated G, but does contain some animated violence (fighting and gunplay) and a few scenes that may be terrifying to younger audiences, as well as some mildly vulgar gags.