Deja Vu

Despite its allegorical pretensions, Devil's Island takes no clear position on Iceland or America or the 1950s or pop culture or any of the other subjects it raises. The film's apparent distrust of Baddi's U.S.-inspired greaser act doesn't extend to its soundtrack, which relies heavily on familiar twangy instrumentals like "Rumble," "Harlem Nocturne" and "Red River Rock," and though the characters grumble about the U.S. presence on their soil, they never offer any coherent political reason for their enmity.

The characters in Devil's Island merely endure, almost in spite of themselves, and the best Fridriksson can offer is a kind of bemused admiration for their eccentricities. Though they survive tragedy and absurdity, family crises and triumphs as well as "Hound Dog," they're no better off than they were at the film's beginning.

Plays at 8 p.m. June 19 and 20 at Webster University.
-- Robert Hunt

Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck

Disney departed from its usual practice of basing its big animated features on classic literature or myth when it made what has proved to be one of the studio's most popular films ever, The Lion King. Yet just barely beneath its surface, that film had a streak of xenophobia carried almost to the point of fascism -- the effeminate usurper of a hereditary title pollutes the leonine kingdom by integrating the hyenas, creatures with ethnic voices, into the pride. Late in the movie, there's a shot of an army of hyenas goose-stepping; clearly someone working on the picture was alert to the subtext and decided it would be wise to distract us from it by sneaking the jackboots onto the wrong paws.

Given the almost Aryan mythos of The Lion King, one would expect Tarzan, Disney's newest excursion into the jungle, to drip with upper-class entitlement and subliminal racism. The source material is from Edgar Rice Burroughs, who may just be the least politically correct of popular American writers. His 1914 novel Tarzan of the Apes, like most of his other works, is full of gushingly described brawny white heroes chastising swarthy savages and ravenous beasts, and not much separates the two kinds of enemies. Blacks are either fierce cannibals or faithful retainers, and women, whether pure or seductive, are swooning damsels. Like many Americans (still), Burroughs was also dazzled by the idea of English nobility, and Tarzan of the Apes hinges on the conception that if you take a titled British lord and abandon him as a naked infant in the wilds of darkest Africa, he will just naturally, by dint of his inherent superiority, become Lord of the Jungle.

Yet somehow hardly any of this sensibility carries over into Disney's Tarzan. And, oddly, this is a bit disappointing, because along with Burrough's obsessions, however retrograde, much of his passion has also been drained out of the story. The biggest letdown in this Tarzan is the handling of the apes. In the novel, our hero's parents are marooned on the African coast by mutineers (swarthy, of course). Both soon die at the hands of Burroughs' fanciful notion of gorillas -- the boy's delicate mother succumbs simply from fright at their attack, and his father is mauled to death by Kerchak, the ferocious ape-clan ruler, who is on the point of killing the baby as well before the infant is rescued by the she-ape Kala. Kala gives him the name Tarzan -- "White Skin" in Burroughs' apespeak -- and raises and protects him.

It's been pointed out that mothers don't get much play in the world of Disney animated fantasy -- they're usually either absent altogether, as in The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, or else they're minor background figures, as in The Lion King. I had hoped that Kala's bottomless, courageousdevotion to her foundling son might partly redress this gap. As ludicrous as it is, it's hard not to be touched when, in the novel, Tarzan proclaims, "My mother was an Ape ... I never knew who my father was." In Disney's Tarzan, even though Glenn Close was brought aboard to lend Kala her fine, strong voice, theape-mother still remains a recessive figure, and Kerchak, who simply feels the boy is a threat, is no longer so much a menace as he is one more dad who just doesn't understand.

Because science now knows the gorilla to be a peaceable creature, and in light of the appalling degree to which the species is endangered -- Kerchak's misgivings about interacting with humans have proved tragically sound for his species -- Disney's decision to retell the story without the "killer ape" calumny seems entirely reasonable. Burroughs, after all, never visited Africa. For that matter, no one should expect fidelity to all of Burroughs' pulpy ideas and plot twists. It's not usually remembered that the plot of the novel reaches its climax not in Africa but in a forest fire in Wisconsin. But this film reworks the novel's hoary theme -- a man becomes master of a dangerous world through superior breeding -- into an equally maddening modern formula. Did it really have to be one more tour of the Search for the Father's Approval?

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