June 28, 1999 12:00 PM

Animated, with the voices of Tony Goldwyn, Glenn Close, Minnie Driver

Tarzan comes out swinging. The early scenes in Disney’s plushly animated movie are as action-packed and emotion-filled as one could wish for in a summer blockbuster: The infant Tarzan and his parents are shipwrecked off Africa, his folks are killed by a cheetah (offscreen, mercifully, for kid viewers) and then little Tarzan is adopted by an adoring gorilla mom who has just lost her own baby. Even better stuff follows as Tarzan struggles to fit in with the apes and then, upon meeting spunky Jane (who’s in Africa with her dithering dad to study gorillas), to also explore his identity as a man. The movie’s sense of humor and poignancy falter a bit at the end when it cranks up a ho-hum finale pitting Tarzan against an evil English jungle guide intent on capturing Tarzan’s gorilla kin.

Based on Edgar Rice Burrough’s rousing 1914 pulp novel (which has already spawned nearly 50 films), this latest look at the loincloth king explores issues of family and belonging. Family, it seems to say, is whoever raises and loves you, but you still need to find out who you are and where you belong. Obviously, Tarzan gives young viewers plenty to mull over afterward, but while they’re watching they will be enthralled by the sheer athleticism of Tarzan as he slides down tree branches with the grace of a skateboarder and swings from vine to vine like Michael Jordan going for a dunk. They will be amused by the naughty antics of Tarzan and his primate pals, particularly when the hairy scamps stage a jam session with pots and pans at Jane’s camp.

Of the actors providing voices, standouts include Goldwyn as adult Tarzan, Driver as a plucky Jane, Close as Tarzan’s loving ape mom, and Rosie O’Donnell as Tarzan’s mischievous gorilla sidekick. (Unanswered question: How does Tarzan, who remains smooth-chinned upon reaching maturity, learn to shave?) (G)

Bottom Line: Vine and dandy

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