Tarzan is the first ever animated film starring the iconic King of the Apes. As well as the final film released in the massively successful Disney Renaissance. Walt Disney animation’s biggest winning streak to date. After the success of Mulan, Tarzan sealed off the 90’s as the studios thirty-seventh production overall. I always liked the fact that the Disney Renaissance is made up of 10 films over a perfect 10 year period. Tarzan is one of the most universally recognized wild men in all of literature. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan first appeared in Tarzan of the Apes as far back as 1912. For decades, Tarzan has appeared in a grand total of 24 official novels, several live-action films, radio programs, stage productions, video games, etc.
So it is surprising to know animation hadn’t been attempted before. It’s the very reason Disney decided to tackle the story. Inspiration came from both the original book and the pioneering 1932 movie Tarzan the Ape Man. The novel portrays Tarzan as more well spoken, while the film’s portrayal popularized the trademark yell and “Me Tarzan, You Jane” speech pattern. The story of a white man raised in the jungle by gorillas was unchanged, but Disney had to remove the uncomfortable depiction of African natives. Tarzan’s later years as the more civilized British Lord Greystoke were also unused. No matter how many times Tarzan is adapted, Disney’s 1999 animated adventure will always be my definitive version…
Tarzan has had a profound effect on me growing up. Since I loved to crawl and swing around like Tarzan when I was younger. 1999 was filled with hits, but Tarzan remained a favorite of my brother and me. My 4 year old memory of seeing it in theaters is a lot clearer than Hercules and Mulan. Together the last three Disney Renaissance movies make up a sort of trilogy that’s especially dear to my heart. We watched Tarzan on VHS many times without knowing its full impact. As the last of its impactful era, Tarzan is like a culmination of everything that came before. While at the same time paving the way for the future. Tarzan opens in the 1800’s where an English couple manage to survive a devastating shipwreck along with the cutest Disney baby ever. The couple wash up near the African rainforest where they work together to build an impressive treehouse.
Mirroring their lives is a couple of gorillas who have an infant son of their own. The unfortunate connection is the savage leopard Sabor. The first major antagonist until the true Disney villain shows up. Sabor eats the baby gorilla and kills the babies parents in a surprisingly graphic fashion. Kala is the mother gorilla who raises the baby she finds alone in the treehouse. Something mother gorilla’s have been known to do in real life. Glenn Close is a topnotch talent who brings out all the best qualities of a loving mother. Disney doesn’t always explore mother’s, but Kala is easily one of their very best. She names him Tarzan, but her mate/alpha gorilla Kerchak doesn’t want anything to do with him. In the book, Kerchak is responsible for the fate of Tarzan’s parents, but in the movie he’s just standoffish. Something Lance Henriksen is good at portraying.
Rather than just the simple adventures of an ape man, Disney increases the emotional weight of Tarzan’s journey towards discovering his place in the world. As a boy, Tarzan is just trying to fit in. A less unlikeable Rosie O’Donnell voices tomboy gorilla Terk. Tarzan’s adoptive cousin, closest friend, and a funny enough Disney sidekick. While playing, Tarzan accidentally causes a stampede of elephants. In the process meeting a paranoid little elephant named Tantor. Woody Allen was supposed to voice the neurotic elephant, but I can only see the humorous Wayne Knight in the role. Though I’ve always wondered why it seems like Tantor abandoned his family to live with the gorillas?
You can really feel Tarzan’s struggle as the only human in a group of gorillas, but Kala’s heartfelt encouragement is everything he needs. So Tarzan learns to use his personal strengths to build tools, swing on vines, and surf on tree branches until he grows into the wild man we all know and love. Like Simba & Hercules, Tarzan is first seen as a baby and a kid, until a quick musical montage ages him to maturity. Tarzan may be a simple half naked man in a loincloth with dreadlocks and a pointy chin, but his entire muscle structure had to be perfected. Along with his ape-like movements. More close to the book, Tony Goldwyn is a well spoken Tarzan. He gets a chance to prove himself to Kerchak after an intense final confrontation with Sabor. Finally perfecting his trademark yell.
As that chapter closes, another one opens when Tarzan for the first times sees people who look like him. He first sees Clayton. A sauve British guide with little similarity to his namesake. This Calyton is actually a cruel hunter looking to imprison and sell the gorillas. Brian Blessed does a lot to perfect both the Disney villain and Tarzan yell. He next sees the comically eccentric Professor Porter whose goal is to study the gorillas. Voiced by the late Nigel Hawthorne in his final voice role. But it’s Jane Porter that Tarzan falls in love with. Minnie Driver does a lot to show Jane’s intelligence, eccentricities, chattiness, and creativity. A lot of her funniest lines were improvised. Jane is also seriously underrated as a Disney heroine. She’s one the prettiest and her freedom from structured society is represented by how many articles of clothing she loses. Going from a posh yellow dress to a more revealing midriff by the end.
Since Tarzan & Jane are one of the most iconic couples in fiction, their relationship had to reflect that. Tarzan rescues Jane from baboons, learns to speak like her, and compares her hand with his. Their romance is a lot like Hercules & Meg in how it’s crucial, but doesn’t happen until later in the film. Kerchak warns the gorillas to stay away, except Tarzan is too curious, and learns everything there is to know about being a man. He finally agrees to show them the gorillas, but it all goes wrong and Tarzan is lost between two worlds. So Kala tells him the truth about his parents in a manner that adoptive parents will be touched by. It seems like Tarzan will explore his Greystoke roots in London, but Clayton betrays everyone when he shows his true colors. Terk & Tantor help him escape the boat and Tarzan realises his ape family is where he truly belongs. Clayton fatally shoots Kerchak before an atmospheric final confrontation against Tarzan in the trees.
In one of the most chilling Disney villain deaths, Clayton angrily chops through all the vines but the one around his neck. That would be dark enough, except you can see his hanging body in the shadow of the thunder. Kerchak sadly dies not long after accepting Tarzan as his son. Making Tarzan the new alpha. Although it seems like Jane and her father will leave forever, they decide to stay, and Jane is accepted by the gorillas with an “Ooo-ooh-ee-ah-ooo.” The Disney Renaissance ends in the most satisfying way as Tarzan & Jane swing through the trees and Tarzan lets out an incredible chest pounding yell. Tarzan was a major animation achievement that showed just how far the studio came in 10 years. Computer animation was used in the most extensive way at the time. A technique was created called Deep Canvas that allowed digital backgrounds to resemble traditional 2D paintings. The jungles of Africa are absolutely breathtaking.
As are the exhilarating swinging and surfing sequences. Which are obviously meant to resemble the totally radical extreme sports of the 90’s. Something only animation can turn into a spectacle. The medium is a far better fit for a story with talking gorillas who are just as stylized as other Disney animals, but the studio still studied the great apes closely. Humans are in no particular style apart from maybe the illustrations of some books. Music is always important to Disney, but Tarzan isn’t a traditional musical. Frankly I agree that breaking into song wouldn’t work for the story. Like Elton John, famous contemporary artist Phil Collins elevates the soundtrack with several amazing original songs. Ending the Disney Renaissance with a whopping 11 Oscars before Best Animated Feature was even created. The Oscar winning “You’ll Be in My Heart” is a beautiful lullaby for mother’s everywhere. “Son of Man” is an inspirational coming of age tune. “Strangers Like Me” is an exciting journey of discovery. While “Trashin’ the Camp” is a catchy Stomp inspired smash. But it’s the opening and closing song “Two Worlds” that really stays with you. Tarzan goes to show that families come in many forms.
Preceded by: Tarzan II & Followed by: Tarzan & Jane