31 January 2013

DISNEY SEQUELS: I'M TRYING HARD TO BELIEVE IT'S NOT JUST A DREAM

I suppose that I have spent more time investigating the backstory of Tarzan & Jane, the 2002 sequel to Disney's 1999 Tarzan, than any human being could possibly justify, which is as much to say: I spent any time investigating its backstory whatsoever. Which matters only because the backstory is a bit odd: see, in 2001, Tarzan became the latest in a depressingly long line of Disney animated features turned into a television series - and, one must concede, it makes a lot more sense for that treatment than most of them - with the 36-episode The Legend of Tarzan. And it is frequently said that Tarzan & Jane is naught but three episodes of that show stitched together by a framing narrative and sold to helpless children with a criminal lack of shame. Incorrect! In fact, Tarzan & Jane was made of three episodes animated for the series but held back specifically to make this cash-in, and it was only a year later that they were added back into the series' syndication package. So it's not as offensively mercenary as it could have been, which is admittedly cutting things awfully fine, particularly since we're still talking about Disney's sequels and all. And now that you've read all of that, I'm certain you'll agree that the ten minutes I spent researching and writing all that out, and the two minutes you spent reading it, are among the most wasted in either of our lives.

The film-shaped object - I do not care to do it the honor of giving the name of a proper film - opens on the first anniversary of Jane Porter's (Olivia d'Abo) marriage to the ape-raised man of the jungle, Tarzan (Michael T. Weiss), and concerns, at its broadest level, Jane's attempts to come up with a way to celebrate. Which puts us in weird territory from pretty much the word "go", doesn't it? This is, after all, meant for children, and while it's fair game to put marriage as such in the crosshairs of children's entertainment - Disney has made a number of fortunes doing just that - anniversaries are just, I don't know, weirdly fussy and domestic and not at all the kind of thing that any kid I've ever known could even give a shit about. But that is the piper you must pay when almost every single movie your studio produces ends with a wedding.

Anyway, Jane is chilling in the jungle, with sassy ape Terk (April Winchell) and neurotic elephant Tantor (Jim Cummings), discussing what she'd like to do - an English-style party! presents! dancing! - with the animals blithely pointing out why each of these would be likelier to upset Tarzan than anything, given the way events played out in the last year. The mechanism by which Jane and the animals are able to casually speak is not really explored, sadly. But that's not important: what's important, of course, is that this little chat gives rise to three 22-minute stories about just some of the adventures had by Tarzan and Jane since the end of their real picture. It is exactly the same hook as Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, though I'll do Tarzan & Jane the honor of admitting that it is much, much better than that bastardly thing was.

The first of these segments, "Tarzan and the British Invasion", is about the time when Jane's three school friends Eleanor (Nicollette Sheridan), Greenly (Grey DeLisle), and Hazel (Tara Strong) popped by the jungle to see how she was doing. It being very much a key theme of each segment the presumably indescribable isolation of this corner of Africa was all along just a code for, "you can get there from Europe on a whim with nothing but a basket of sandwiches to comfort you". Also, the fact that the three women specifically know where Jane can be found and come looking for her seems at least somewhat at odds with the end of the first movie, in which Jane's father (Jeff Bennett) told the captain of the ship heading back to England to spread the word that the Porters had both died.

The conflict, of course, is that the stuffy Britishers can't fathom why Jane is happy in the jungle, and her attempts to bring a touch of British civility to make them comfortable backfire spectacularly, so she and Tarzan have to end up saving them from the pair of evil black panthers who were apparently recurring villains in the show. It's Kiddie Show Drama 101, easily conceived and easily resolved, though I do admire this segment's writer Mirith Colao for going for it, and presenting Hazel as being sexually aroused by the thought of Jane and Tarzan getting it on, to a degree that is much more forthright than I like from my children's entertainment.

The second segment, "Tarzan and the Volcanic Diamond Mine", because they used up all their puns with the first title. This time, we start off at a trading post owned by the spectacularly French Renard Dumont (Rene Auberjonois, whose cartoon French accent is actually quite different here than his cartoon French accent in The Little Mermaid, so kudos), where Tarzan and Jane apparently show up all the damn time, because the implication in the first movie that this was hundreds of miles from any other European settlement has also been discarded in favor of more white people in the stock company. Maybe this was all explained in the show. I am guessing it was not. Dumont, at any rate, is busy selling information to Dutch smugglers Johannes Neils (John Hurley) and Merkus (Kevin Michael Richardson), who are hoping to find a legendary diamond mine inside a volcano on the far side of the jungle. The Frenchman suggests that Tarzan would make a good guide, and the promise of one of these shiny stones that the Europeans love as a gift to Jane is all it takes to convince him to swallow his better judgment and help these two shifty fellows out.

This is also pretty basic Every Animated Kids' Show Ever stuff, with the Dutchmen trapping every damn character in the volcano, as it is in the process of erupting, because duh. Though I have to give credit, the eruption allows the animators to do something fun things with color, the only visual element of the whole of Tarzan & Jane that I found especially interesting.

By this point I was starting to glaze over from boredom. Well, "Tarzan and the Flying Ace" puts a stop to that! Jane's old friend Bobby Canler (a second role for Bennett) has arrived - because again, you can just take a vacation right out to Darkest Africa in this show, apparently - and Tarzan is both jealous and suspicious, and this turns out to be wise, because Canler is secretly a spy hoping to sell a piece of British technology he hid in Jane's belongings before she left. That's already a bit loopier than it is clich├ęd, but the magic is in the details, which are stunningly misconceived: one gets the impression that the writers (Jess Winfield, David Bullock, and Adam Van Wyck) had there collection of plot points they absolutely wanted to hit, but only a lunch break to write the script connecting them all, and thus "Flying Ace" is a collection of some of the most unabashedly lazy and stupid screenwriting tricks I could imagine cramming into one half-hour teleplay: the only reason we learn that Canler is a traitor is because he proudly admits that he is, instead of coming up with one of a dozen obvious lies to cover his tracks, something a spy would hopefully have some training in doing. The whole rest of the plot wouldn't have happened at all, if he'd only responded to Jane's "Are you a secret agent?" by saying, "Yep, and I need this back. God save the king", instead of "no, a double agent, and now that you know, let me try to kidnap you and murder your incredibly strong apeman husband, who can support the entire weight of a plane with his prehensile toes later on this episode".

Regardless, he wouldn't have said "God save the king" because at numerous points in Tarzan & Jane, it's made clear that in whatever magical variant of the 1910s this takes place in, England is ruled by a queen. I imagine this was to avoid confusing the children watching, in which case it speaks only of the creators' contempt for their audience; the other possibility is even worse, because it requires them to actually be that damn stupid.

Only this third sequence is really, truly dumb; the first two are just boilerplate. And that's really the thing about Tarzan & Jane: it's never as awful as the truly disgusting depths which the DTV Disney films could and had already reached. It's just simplistic and cheap, and if these three episodes hadn't been thrust into the glare of the spotlight, they probably wouldn't register as anything more than just another dodgy kids' show.

Which is, after all, the only thing it ever set out to be, and ignoring what it says about the depraved state of children's entertainment, it does make it even more unfair to pick on Tarzan & Jane for its innumerable shortcomings than it is for the other DTV sequels. Still it's hard as hell to look at this:

-and not think despairingly of the great nuance and skill with which Glen Keane supervised Tarzan's movements and posture.

We're miles away from that, of course; this is a cheap TV show animated in multiple countries, and there was never going to be any real artistry to it. Still, there's cheap and there's cheap, and Tarzan & Jane is unusually eager to make its characters look as bad as you'd assume is possible, whether it's the seemingly dozens of times that Jane's face has been replaced by an off-brand parody-

-or Tarzan's musculature and posture going so far off-model that you begin to suspect there wasn't even a model sheet to begin with-

-or whatever the living fuck is going on in this grotesque image of Tarzan with his head looking like it was crudely Photoshopped in by someone who guessed at the scale and never corrected their mistake:

But it really is much too easy to pick on the miserable thing. It's a hideous piece of shit that tells stories veering from the groaningly obvious and trite to the unspeakably incoherent, with very few stops along the way, and it focuses on all the least interesting possible places to take the story of Tarzan - their fucking anniversary - and it wrecks one of the most technically sophisticated worlds ever created by Walt Disney Feature Animation, but it was the very first release after The Hunchback of Notre Dame II, and by God, if that's not enough to teach you the difference between the mediocre and the truly wicked, then nothing ever shall. Tarzan & Jane is junk, but at least it's not overreaching junk.

8 comments:

Brian said...

"Regardless, he wouldn't have said "God save the king" because at numerous points in Tarzan & Jane, it's made clear that in whatever magical variant of the 1910s this takes place in, England is ruled by a queen. I imagine this was to avoid confusing the children watching, in which case it speaks only of the creators' contempt for their audience; the other possibility is even worse, because it requires them to actually be that damn stupid."

You need to warn me before you type something that funny, so I can swallow the water in my mouth before I read it.

Also, I just know those bastards at Disney are going to include this on the disc when they finally put Tarzan on blu-ray here. Bastards.

Monica Reida said...

The designs for Tarzan and Jane in your screenshots look like a little kid's fanart, but holy hell, Hazel's character looks absolutely awful in that first screenshot. I've seen caricatures of overweight British people from 19th century newspapers that look better than that.

Also, glad you're back Tim. I was starting to fear that Hunchback of Notre Dame II broke you.

David Greenwood said...

Not to slight your writing, but that last screenshot made me laugh harder than everything you had written above it combined. Like the kind of laugh where you don't actually laugh, but just sit there with your mouth open, continually sucking in air and preparing for the laugh that will eventually come when it stops being quite so hilarious.

That. Is. Magical.

David Greenwood said...

I MEAN SERIOUSLY, is Jane suddenly crosseyed? Did a fly land on her nose? Did all four of those ladies just wade into toxic waste offscreen? The mind boggles.

Tim said...

Brian- it is my hope ("hope") that they stick with Tarzan II and just ignore this one altogether.

Monica- Aye, there were a great many stills I could have grabbed of Jane's three friends, who are among the most unbelievably awful character designs in any film with the Disney name attached to it.

And I did, in fact, take a bit longer off than I'd planned to, on account of how damn much I hated HOND2, and how much it made me not want to dive right back in.

David- Glad you liked the shot! The instant I saw it in the movie, I knew it had to get the farewell slot in the review. It just keeps on giving, the more you stare at it, willing yourself to stare anywhere else.

javi75 said...

I have to confess I haven't seen this one. Really Tim, I don't know how your're surviving this retrospective, you're much too intelligent and sensitive for this stuff. You should leave it to people like me, haha. I actually mean that. I'm starting to realize "Kiddie Show Drama 101" is right up my alley. Having said that, this:
"The conflict, of course, is that the stuffy Britishers can't fathom why Jane is happy in the jungle, and her attempts to bring a touch of British civility to make them comfortable backfire spectacularly"
and this:
"who are hoping to find a legendary diamond mine inside a volcano on the far side of the jungle. The Frenchman suggests that Tarzan would make a good guide, and the promise of one of these shiny stones that the Europeans love as a gift to Jane is all it takes to convince him to swallow his better judgment and help these two shifty fellows out."
are straight out of the Johnny Weismuller movies, either as main plot or sub-plot elements. Those weren't exactly made for the grown-ups either, so I don't know what I'm driving at. Just saying.

Tim said...

I will confess that my tolerance for the Weismuller Tarzan pictures topped out around the first sequel. But I'll take your word for it.

javi75 said...

Well, that seems coherent. To some degree, the Weismuller sequels are to the first movie what these Disney sequels are to the originals. A lot safer, kiddie-oriented, maybe dumber (this is probably not so clear in the Weismuller movies). They became like TV episodes. I still like them of course, haha.
The first Weismuller sequel is great actually, still pre-Code and seems to have a bigger budget, but then the Production Code and Richard Thorpe came in. Well, I have to confess I kind of love Thorpe.
The second sequel seems to have a fascinating behind-the-scenes story, with more than 1 year in production, several directors, extensive re-shoots. Hollywood in the '30s I adore you.