July 1999
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feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

Animation: The State of the Fart

One fictional character that I feel very close to is Tarzan. When my grandfather was very young, he had a debilitating illness that nearly killed him, and kept him in bed for over a year recovering. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels were at the height of their popularity, and grandpa was given all six that had been published at the time to keep his active mind occupied. He also enjoyed Burroughs' other novels, as well as the works of Swift, Kipling and Verne - but the jungle tales of Tarzan were special favorites. A lonely boy, cut off from friends and a "normal" childhood, he had little difficulty relating to the adventures of a human raised as an outsider among a tribe of apes.

When I was a lad the books were passed down to me, and I immediately fell in love with Burroughs' rich characters, fast-paced plots, colorfully described locales and clever, suspenseful devices. I quickly pored through them, and later moved on to all 39-odd Tarzan novels. Burroughs didn't care to construct plots and engineer situations - the tales poured out of him as if channeled from another world.

This is probably why Tarzan has been the subject of film so many times - thus far, over 60 features and a half dozen or so television series. He was so richly realized in the imagination that the character could be reinterpreted many different ways and still maintain his primal essence, while leaving many facets still to be explored. Last year, the German made Tarzan and the Lost City captured the potboiler drive of Burroughs' later novels. This summer, Disney unveiled their own take on the character, succeeding marvelously in translating Tarzan's early development into animation.

It's not too surprising - much of this part of Tarzan's life was heavily 'inspired' by Kipling's tales of Mowgli, which Disney had already appropriated twice. But I'd feared that Tarzan would be unrecognizably filtered through the Disney template. The company's animation studio had been saved in the '80s by a string of hit musical comedies featuring perky young men and women aided by comic animal sidekicks. Even The Lion King took the formula and redressed it in fur. I feared we'd see a scene of Tarzan showing his frustration after seeing his reflection in the pool by breaking into one of Disney's standard Broadway-clone songs. But even though I suffered from the mangling of Burroughs' plot (which admittedly would be tough to condense - the original book was carried over into a sequel), the hambone performances of Rosie O'Donnell as a big hairy ape and Wayne Knight as a big fat elephant, and the insufferably blandness of Phil Collins interchangeable songs, I have to admit that Disney did all right by the Ape Man. His jungle is brilliantly crafted through the use of their new "deep canvas" technology, the characters maintain a little dignity, and maybe some kids will be turned on by the theme enough to get down to the book store to check out the source. Sure, maybe Disney got a little heavy-handed with the films conservationist message - promoting interest in wild animals isn't such a bad thing, is it? Even if they're just pimping their new Disneyworld zoo set to open this year.

They also apparently learned a lesson from Toy Story - that every animated feature doesn't necessarily have to be a musical. For once, the music is kept in the background, blessedly keeping the fourth wall from tumbling down.

But wait! If the summer goes by without the Disney animators to hold up the tradition of film musicals, will they disappear altogether? Who will see that the institution of the movie musical, dead and forgotten except in the form of animated features, will be preserved and carried on? Who will step forward to pick up the banner?

Why Saddam Hussein, of course!

Fans of the television series South Park - and many non-fans as well - are familiar with the fact that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have an abiding fondness for a good fart joke. Or even a bad one, as long as they can get a laugh out of it anyway. But only discerning viewers have noticed that they love musical theater even more. The cartoon cut-outs of their little puppet world waste no opportunity to break into song and dance, and the pairs first foray into feature films was with Cannibal: The Musical, a tuneful retelling of the Alfred Packer story.

So it should be no surprise that they've taken the opportunity to turn the cash-in feature version of their this-year's-model TV success into a full-fledged musical. Audiences will be leaving the theater humming the tune to such ditties as "Mountain Town", Eric Cartman's reprisal of "Kyle's Mom is a Bitch in D Minor", "What Would Brian Boitano Do?", and (a personal favorite) "Blame Canada". Not to be outdone, Hussein not only sings the love song "I Swear It (I Can Change)" to his new boyfriend Satan, he also breakdances to it, despite the fact he's been killed by a pack of wild boars. You may disagree with the man's politics, but you gotta hand it to him when it comes to song stylings.

Those that were first introduced to little Stan, Kyle, Eric and Kenny through their hit underground short "The Spirit of Christmas" may have grumbled when the boys moved to expanded basic cable fame, complaining that their relatively cleaned up vocabulary just wasn't as funny. The boys were even accused of having "sold out", and the further move into theatrical features was despised as the ultimate in crass commercialism.

Just about everybody uses profanity from time to time. Some would be unable to speak without it. But nobody seems to actually care about it that much, to revel in its simple joys and blunt musicality. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut doesn't just return those 7 little words to the boys rough-hewn cartoon mouths - it is forthrightly about those words. More to the point, it's about how some people go to great lengths to determine who can say which words, and when and where they can be said - even going so far as to finally declaring war on our natural enemy, Canada. It's about the fact that the media really does affect how children behave, but also that the parents have the largest influence of all. It lampoons the fact that children may have difficulty getting in to see it. And it's also about the fact that farts aren't really funny, but the fact that people think they are is. Yup, there's a very deep message here, iced with a thick sticky coating of sick, twisted, hilarious comic artistry.

A lot has been said recently about how animation is taking over the entertainment industry. Prime time television is becoming crowded with cartoon shows, more studios are releasing animated features to theaters and direct to video - heck, due to digital technology, even the "live" features are full of animation. What I'm wondering is: why is this spoken of as some kind of threat? Do people really think that cartoons are taking jobs away from people? I see it as a tribute to the range of expression attainable only in the format. I also see it as a huge opportunity for the artists that work in that format to finally get to show what they can really do - instead of just selling dog food. I only hope that they get paid what they're worth.



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