'Tarzan' swings to top; 'Daughter' provokes

Opening today

Good news. Hollywood is recovering from its "Star Wars" bombardment, and even if the new "Austin Powers" picture can't exactly be called a step in the right direction, more varied fare is starting to arrive.

Leading the way is Disney's animated Tarzan, retelling the story of an orphaned child who grows up with gorillas in Africa, becomes a handsome vine-swinger with animal pals, but decides humanity might have its own attractions when a group of scientists - including Jane, an Englishwoman who happens to be just his type - barge into his neck of the jungle.

Some recent animations with a traditional approach, including Disney's own "Hercules" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," have wobbled at the box office, suggesting that high-tech feats like "Antz" and "A Bug's Life" are the wave of the genre's future. "Tarzan" is entertaining enough to turn this trend around. The action is lively, the art work is enticing, and the voices-only cast brings the characters to vivid life.

What keeps the picture from swinging to the top of the family-film tree is the absence of any thrilling, over-the-top sequence to make audiences tingle with excitement, like the "Under the Sea" number in "The Little Mermaid" or "Be Our Guest" in "Beauty and the Beast" or many moments in older Disney classics. One scene heads in this direction, as jungle-dwellers poke through the British camp, but doesn't build on its possibilities. This aside, "Tarzan" is a smart and stylish entertainment that reconfirms the value of old-fashioned movie cartooning.

The General's Daughter comes from the opposite end of the Hollywood spectrum, telling a dark tale of military life.

John Travolta plays an army cop probing the bizarre murder of a female officer whose father, a high-ranking commander, is about to enter politics. His main ally is a rape investigator (Madeleine Stowe) who can be as tough as the men she interrogates. Their discoveries range from a cache of scandalous videotapes to a long-buried secret that complicates their quest for justice.

The movie is marred by clunky dialogue, a scenario with more twists than it can handle, and a weakness for pop psychologizing that makes the average Woody Allen picture seem positively Freudian by comparison. On the plus side, Travolta and Stowe are in good form, backed by a strong supporting cast.

The picture also provides a timely reminder of how hard it is to use the R rating as a catch-all label for socially questionable material. Of course, its psychosexual horrors deserve that designation, but how about its well-aimed attacks on male chauvinism? "The General's Daughter" isn't great cinema, but it provokes a thought or two, and that's more than Austin Powers has to offer.

*'Tarzan,' rated G, contains mild violence. 'The General's Daughter,' rated R, contains explicit sexual violence.

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