Does 2005's Tarzan II deserve bonus points just for not looking like ass as much as Tarzan & Jane? I don't really know. I'm giving it those points anyway.

In fact, not only is Tarzan II visually improved over its hugely unimpressive predecessor, I'm at least a little bit tempted to call it the single best-looking DisneyToon Studios release up to that point: good enough that it could certainly hold up to being released as a full-on theatrical movie, even if it's certainly not comparable to the utterly gorgeous 1999 Tarzan itself. The backgrounds aren't quite up to the standard set by that movie; of course, they were never going to, since Tarzan spent an inordinate amount of time and money on the development of a new technology, Deep Canvas, whose solitary point (at that time - in later projects, it was put to more inventive use) was to create extremely rich, painterly backdrops that could be quickly explored in three dimensions. Tarzan II has to make do with tracking shots in and around a distressingly low-resolution CGI jungle that matches with the cel-animated characters not at all, looking rather like Walt Disney Feature Animation's first experiments in uncertain marriages between CG and hand-drawn animation back in the early '90s.

But the character animation itself, that's actually pretty fantastic - I'd say "fantastic for DisneyToon", but the actual fact of the matter is that it's frequently in the ballpark of DisneyToon's far more prestigious big brother, with its best moments roughly equaling the weakest patches of a late-'90s Disney feature; it's certainly no worse than any of the non-Disney animated features that started cropping up in that decade, and in fact the general level of technical accomplishment is so high that it really stands out badly whenever something briefly drops to the normal level of DisneyToon animation, as for example this image of Sabor the jaguar (whose utterly pointless appearance we can ascribe to cramming as many links between this movie and the original as was reasonable - but more on that in a minute), looking all roughly-inked and with a deformed leg and everything.

I have snipped out that screen shot, you understand, specifically because it is the worst-looking frame in the entirety of Tarzan II. And it's awfully bad, but trust me, that is a gross violation of what's otherwise a shockingly handsome direct-to-video cash-in sequel to what was, in 2005, the last hugely profitable Disney picture.

Now, Tarzan II being well-animated in and of itself is one thing; it's not quite the case that it lines up with the original perfectly. Tarzan himself, still the young boy of the movie's opening sequence (and voiced now by Harrison Chad), seems to have gone off-model in a way that I'm not quite certain actually exists, but I swear he didn't look so... puffy, in the first movie.

Tarzan II (2005)

Tarzan (1999)

Anyway, Tarzan II looks good. That's really all the more point I was trying to make. And a good thing that it looks good, because it is goddamned stupid, opening with the fact that, despite being called Tarzan II, it is not in fact a continuation of the plot of Tarzan (something that the worse-in-every-other-way Tarzan & Jane, in fact, is), but one of Disney's notorious "midquels". Not the first, of course - there'd been two midquels for Beauty and the Beast alone - but the first that lies about it. Nor, I'm sorry to say, the last.

In addition to being a sinfully ugly neologism, "midquel" doesn't apply to this particularly movie very well, anyway. The break in which it takes place isn't remotely near the middle of Tarzan, but occurs before the 20-minute mark, and the montage by which Tarzan grows from feckless wild boy to supremely confident and capable jungle man isn't a Lion King-style division of the plot into two separate and equal movements, but more of the transition from a prologue to the movie proper. But, of course, there's no possible room for any more stories set after the original movie - I mean, Christ, multiple Tarzan sequels? That's crazy talk. No way could there be more than one or two stories in such a chronology. Certainly not two-dozen, all ready-made and waiting for adaptation - and anyway, the drawback of continuing the adventures of the adult Tarzan is, well, that whole pesky "adult" angle. This was a Disney DTV sequel, targeting children and children alone, and just like the drift of the most recent Winnie the Pooh movies to focus more and more on Roo, Tarzan II gave its presumed child audience a protagonist it felt they would identify with.

Tragically, the film's narrative is about the same developmental level as its main character. We do not look to these Disney sequels with any expectation of mature, sophisticated storytelling - okay, so I still sort of expect that, despite all the mountains of Hunchback II-shaped evidence, because I have a weirdly specific faith in the basic goodness of humanity - so it's not Tarzan II's fault that its story is banal and childish, repetitive and aggravatingly low-stakes. Those are features, as they say, not bugs. Still, it's an awfully drab, cliché-packed package of events centered on a story whose driving purpose ends up being "...and that's how Tarzan learned to swing on vines".

Things start in cozily familiar territory: the main character is earnest but bumbling, and has thus earned himself the enmity of his community. In this case, the human boy Tarzan is perpetually annoying the leader of his gorilla troop, Kerchak (Lance Henriksen, shockingly reprising the character in a role where he has one whole line), and thereupon being comforted by his adopted gorilla mother Kala (Glenn Close, shockingly reprising the character in a much bigger role, but still: Glenn Close in a DTV cartoon). The particular incident that kicks of the movie finds Tarzan, juvenile gorilla buddy Terk (Brenda Grate), and juvenile elephant buddy Tantor (Harrison Fahn) play-acting a chase from the monstrous "Zugor" who lives up in the far mountains, and this ends up causing all sorts of low-level mayhem that still gets everybody pissed off. There are also three intensely annoying baby gorillas who were, I thought, clearly being positioned as major new characters, probably to be involved when Tarzan inevitably found the real Zugor that everybody else thought was a myth. I am overjoyed to report that none of this happened.

Tarzan is a bit abashed by all this when a rainstorm hits, and he ends up tumbling into a deep gorge when the fallen tree the gorillas use as a bridge washes away. He survives, and even manages to clamber back to the troop, but overhearing the mother gorillas talk about how it was all probably for the best, he becomes even more abashed and sulks off to the mountains. Note that this is a completely superfluous bit of narrative padding, crammed in solely to make absolutely sure that we Get It. Though not Getting It would be almost entirely impossible for even the least attentive young viewer.

Anyway, Tarzan ends up clambering to the far mountains, where he encounters a disagreeable trio of exiled gorillas: Mama Gunda (Estelle Harris), and her sons Uto (Brad Garrett) - the dumb one - and Kago (Ron Perlman) - the violent one. He also finds that the Zugor is in fact a cantankerous old gorilla voiced by George Carlin (this was before Cars, I hasten to point out), who has for years been building a legend up around himself using scary echoing noises to convince everybody that he's a monster. In exchange for keeping his secret, Tarzan demands that the Zugor teaches him how not to be such a damn human, insisting with taxonomical accuracy that he is in fact an ape, no matter what anybody else says.

The foremost problem here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that nothing is really at stake: this is, of course, the overriding problem with prequels, but it's not so much an issue that we already know that Tarzan will return to his troop (since that would be obvious simply from the kind of family-friendly pap that the film very quickly announces itself as being), as that there's just not much conflict. The relationship between Tarzan and the Zugor has already started to resolve itself by the end of their first scene together, so there's no "thaw out the old coot" plot that the movie can coast on. The film attempts to make the three sitcom apes fit the role of villains, having them threaten Terk and Tantor when they show up (duh) to rescue Tarzan in secret, but that's an absolute non-starter: they aren't plausible as dangerous bad guys even before it's obvious how easily Tarzan can out-think them, for they're introduced to us before he crosses their paths, in a scene that's an obvious play for sympathy and a promise that they'll end up being alright in the end. As a result, the movie never bothers to pretend that they're a real obstacle to anything.

And so it is that Tarzan II never manages to be anything much more than a hangout movie: spending time with characters we've previously enjoyed, doing wacky, easygoing stuff. Except the Tarzan we see here really isn't the character we've previously enjoyed: he's the young version of that character, and such an incarnation, he barely made any impression. Which makes this midquel - a word that I truly despise, but it has the virtue of sounding haughty and dismissive even as it's descriptive - an exercise in watching a little boy meander about being sad for a little bit and then having fun without ever being in serious danger from a cast of characters who don't really have any malice within them. It is sort of like the work of Studio Ghibli in its renunciation of a good vs. bad narrative conflict, but without the charm and wisdom. It's also as unabashedly kiddie-friendly, at the expense of any meat for a grown-up, as anything Disney was up to at the time besides its continued bastardisation of Winnie the Pooh. And boy, did this particular grown-up find it shallow and boring.