Thursday, April 27, 2017

Rethinking the new Disney classics

There tends to be pretty conventional wisdom on what constitutes the "new Disney classics," which I can define in a way that should be pretty recognizable to you, if you aren't on the same page as me already.

The Little Mermaid starts a run of four great films that gave the Mouse House what is either its first or second of an eventual two or three revivals. Following these were Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.

By Pocahontas, it was over.

(Which is also the year that Pixar made its first movie, which is probably not a coincidence.)

Or was it over?

I got a chance to watch Tarzan on Tuesday for what I thought was only my second time, though my list of films seen multiple times included it already. If I did see Tarzan twice, it was within the space of its first two years of existence. And it seems likely that I did, since I really fell in love with it.

I remember my first viewing quite clearly. A new service that really heralded the arrival of the internet age was responsible for bringing it to me. I lived in New York City at the time, and I'd just learned about a place where you could order online and they would deliver to your house. But not pizza or Chinese or Indian or what you would usually expect. This place -- and boy do I wish I remembered its name -- would deliver movie rentals and groceries, but by groceries, I really mean sweet treats and other naughty things. I remember reveling in and celebrating the discovery of the existence of this site via a rental of Tarzan and a delivery of Krispy Kreme donuts (a novelty to me at the time) and Ben & Jerry's ice cream (probably Cherry Garcia). It was a grand old night, sometime in early 2000 it must have been.

I'm a bit surprised I did not prioritize seeing Tarzan, which had come out the previous June, in time to rank it with my year-end films (yep, I already did that back then), but maybe that's just an indication of how little I expected to like it.

Oh how wrong I was.

The movie's storytelling really swept me up. The use of cutting-edge visuals (the deep canvas and the inspiration of Tony Hawk's skateboarding for the movements of Tarzan through the trees), the perfect usage of a rousing Phil Collins score, terrific vocal work (hello, Minnie Driver) and an emotionally generous story had me putty in this movie's hands. When Tarzan first unleashes his trademark feral holler after vanquishing the tiger that had tormented his people, I think I even teared up.

Over the years, while never forgetting Tarzan's impact on me, I did revise my impression of it. I'd floated the idea of its greatness over the years, and I'd gotten a lot of quizzical looks in return. Every once in a while someone would throw me a bone, but I got the sense it was little more than that. To them, Tarzan was a Pocahontas-equivalent footnote in the great Disney oeuvre. I mean, better than Treasure Planet or Home on the Range, but a lesser entry than The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Hercules.

So I started to think I had been wrong about Tarzan.

But oh how wrong I was about being wrong.

My reacquaintance with Tarzan would likely have been as long as a year ago, which is about when we picked it up at a garage sale in our neighborhood (along with Toy Story 3 and Monsters, Inc.). It wasn't my children's request, with my younger too young to state much of a preference and my older already kind of getting out of these movies (he claimed never to have liked Toy Story in the first place, which is a blatant lie). No, this was all me telling them what they should want to watch, and I was secretly most excited about Tarzan.

But only did it finally make it into the DVD player two days ago, and only after a colossal failure to find something else. It was Anzac Day on Tuesday, and my wife needed the day to work. So I agreed to take the kids for the day. Persistent rain limited our choices of activities to the indoors, and it was the older one's idea to go to Scienceworks, the child-oriented museum where we have a membership (hence saving tens of dollars from my idea, which was one of those indoor play areas that charge you about $15 a pop to enter). My idea for the second activity was to watch a movie in our garage with special treats, the locale and the treats being my ploys to actually finish watching the movie. (Which we did, despite the harassment of mosquitoes.)

We went by the Hoyts kiosk to find something we could all agree on, but agreement was highly elusive. This was where stubbornness met stubbornness, as all three of us were stubborn in our own ways. I only wanted to watch something that I considered to qualify as a "real movie," like Moana, Trolls or Sing. My six-year-old only wanted to watch one of several Pokemon movies available for rental, though his version of a compromise was watching a Lego superhero special. The youngest? Paw Patrol. Nope, there was to be no common ground here.

We deferred the decision to home. I was not very hopeful, resigning myself to rewatching something I didn't have all that much enthusiasm for, but at least met my definition of what counted as a movie. And we weren't going to just watch one of their TV shows. If Daddy was buying chocolate milks and chocolate bars, then Daddy was going to dictate what other ways this would conform to his own definition of "special occasion." And damned if I was going to sit there and watch episodes of some stupid TV series they rented from the library. (In case I am sounding entirely too inflexible, I'll have you know that I had decided to relent and watch one of the Pokemon movies, but fortunately, the three-year-old nixed it, giving me the ammunition I needed to hold strong in my resolve.)

When considering the possible options, I hadn't remembered Tarzan. As soon as I saw it, my eyes widened ever so slightly. And the six-year-old selected it as the only one of our movies to go in the "maybe" pile. The three-year-old was over his opposition to anything at this point. He just wanted his chocolate.

Miracle of miracles.

And though we did have to fend off biting insects and a few moments that the younger one considered too intense, not to mention a couple ill-timed requests for additional snacks, we made it successfully through the movie, as the rain varied in intensity just outside of our field of vision. In fact, something about our garden reminded me of the house in the trees in which baby Tarzan is first discovered by mother ape Kala, saved by her in the first of the film's several great set pieces.

And a few interruptions did not prevent me from falling into this film's embrace. It wrapped itself around me like a giant gorilla cradling a newborn infant.

I shouldn't go on much longer for fear of a) boring you and b) making you doubt my sense of taste for loving such a "Disney footnote" as this. But I did want to contrast this Tarzan viewing with the one I had of Beauty and the Beast about a year go, which heretofore I had considered my favorite of the new Disney classics. I had loved the purity and simplicity of the story of Beast when I saw it in 1991, not to mention its technological advancements in the field of animation. But when I saw it a year ago, its animation was far more dated than I would have ever expected -- shockingly so, really -- and the story felt efficient almost to the point of seeming hurried and lacking in nuance.

Tarzan is no spring chicken, either, as it will celebrate its own 20-year anniversary in a little more than two years. But it struck me as just as modern as when I watched it while injecting myself with sugar in pastry and ice cream form in the spring of 2000. It's not really modern, of course -- although the character design of the humans is sharp, angular and impressionistic, some of the ape stuff seemed a bit broad-brushed and rudimentary. But this story is told with a wit and charm and astonishing sense of heart that made it feel modern in all the right ways.

Now, I can't really say how it stacks up with real modern Disney animation, part of the second (or is it third?) revival that has graced us with the likes of Tangled, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and Zootopia. (And Moana, which we would have watched on Tuesday if I'd had my druthers.) I may have -- in fact, I'm sure I have -- more love in my heart for Tangled than I do for Tarzan.

Though if you squint, those titles not only look the same, alphabetically, but they share a same visual innovation and sweeping narrative that make them both classics in my eyes.

And the real takeaway is how Beauty and the Beast now seems to sort of pale in comparison to them, at least in my eyes, at least on this viewing. Which possibly explains why I haven't made an effort to see the live-action Beast in theaters this past month. It's been more than 20 years since I've seen Aladdin or Little Mermaid or Lion King, but perhaps I'm not so eager to ruin my positive memories of them by being reminded of the ways they've aged.

Like great movies shouldn't, Tarzan hasn't aged. And indeed, I think it's my favorite Disney film of the 1990s.

As for the kids ... yeah, they liked it too. My six-year-old acknowledged it was good, refusing to elaborate (as he did recently with something like My Neighbor Totoro) but also giving it the genuine props he would not need to give it with his increasingly sarcastic attitude. And the three-year-old? He said he "loved it."

Yep, little guy. I agree.

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