The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “Tarzan” (1999)

The Swan Princess,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
The Prince of Egypt,
Quest for Camelot

And now we come to the last Disney film of The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: Tarzan. The 1999 film is based off of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel Tarzan of the Apes and falls under the category of “Films With So Many Deviations from The Source I Don’t Know Where To Begin.”

But I would like to start off by saying that this is an astoundingly beautiful film.

For this film, the animators used a 3D painting and rendering technique they called “Deep Canvas.” The Deep Canvas in this film causes it to have realistic yet picturesque backgrounds of the jungle that Tarzan is set in. What is interesting about doing this project is that I’ve been able to see how the quality of animation has evolved over over the course of five years. The quality of animation seen in Pocahontas is nowhere near as incredible as the animation in Tarzan. In fact, the only film with animation like Tarzan‘s is The Prince of Egypt.

But to the story of the film.

At the start of the film, Tarzan’s family is marooned in Africa after their ship goes up in flames. They build a treehouse and start a life in Africa. At the same time, a gorilla tribe, led by Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), is living somewhat peacefully in the jungle. Kerchak and Kala (Glenn Close) are raising their own ape child, who wanders off one day and is killed by Sabor, who in this film is a single leopard rather than various lionesses. As the tribe is on the move one day and Kala hears a baby crying and deviates from the tribe, to find Tarzan and the dead bodies of his parents, killed by Sabor. (We don’t see this, but it is heavily implied.) Kala brings Tarzan back and decides to raise him as her own, although Kerchak approves in a “Oh, how cute, my wife has an annoying possibly vicious pet” sort of way, not in a “Let’s adopt him as our son” way. As Tarzan (Alex D. Linz) is a child, he becomes ever aware of his differences, perpetually pointed out to him by Kerchak and Terk (Rosie O’Donnell), but Kala informs him that they are essentially the same.

Tarzan (now Tony Goldwyn) grows up, he becomes a quick, agile, warrior and “ape man,” although he would technically be a “gorilla man” since he was brought up by gorillas in this film. In fact, he defends Kerchak from Sabor. He’s now friends with not only Terk, but also a neurotic elephant named Tantor (Wayne Knight). Everything seems fine, until he hears gunshots and the tribe moves. Tarzan goes and investigates, to find Professor Potter (Nigel Hawthorne), Clayton (BRIAN BLESSED), and Professor Potter’s pretty daughter, Jane (Minnie Driver). Jane becomes separated from the group and is chased by baboons, but saved by Tarzan, whom she is immediately terrified of. Then we have the necessary, “Me, Tarzan. You, Jane” sequence. Tarzan then decides to take Jane back to the camp, to discover that the gorillas are trashing the camp because of foreign objects that intrigue them. Jane explains to her father and Clayton about Tarzan and they decide to teach him English and observe him for two different reasons: science and greed. Tarzan then shows them the gorillas and this pisses of Kerchak. Kala then shows Tarzan the treehouse, which is miraculously still standing after several years, and explains to him that he is human, not gorilla. He decides to leave for England, but behold, Clayton is double-crossing jerk that wants to hunt the gorillas.

Tarzan is far from true to its source material. For starters, Tarzan is now raised by gorillas and Kerchak isn’t a murderous ape that kills Tarzan’s parents. Those are two big things. There’s also Jane now being from England rather than America. It’s been a while since I read the book and I can’t list all of the deviations. Still, Disney cleaned up Tarzan and it still is amazing that it got a G rating.

The biggest problem that this film has is that it takes a long time to set up the story. While Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame set up the main story in incredible musical numbers, the set-up to the main story in Tarzan takes almost 30 minutes. The film is also overstuffed with antagonists, having three of them (Sabor, Kerchak, Clayton) and the songs that Phil Collins wrote and sang in the film mostly sound similar. (More on that later) Tarzan doesn’t really gain any momentum, pacing or emotion related, until a third of the way into the movie. But at the same time, when the film is done, it’s a heartwarming and touching story of the importance of family, be they gorilla or human. (See also, Anastasia, which is ultimately about the search for a family and an identity.)

It just really takes a while to get there.

But the film also feels more endurable once the humans show up because it adds some variety. Jane is quite possibly one of the more interesting female Disney leads because even though she’s seen walking around the jungle in a huge Victorian dress, she still is written as an interesting, independent, curious woman. She’s an artist and has at least a slight interest in nature. She seems to genuinely care for Tarzan as a person, not as a specimen.

What is notable about the film is that it isn’t a musical like so many other Disney films that came before. There are five songs in the film, all but one were sung primarily by Phil Collins. The one that isn’t sung by Phil Collins is “Trashin’ The Camp,” which was performed by Rosie O’Donnell and is one of the least necessary feeling sequences in the film. Even Mulan, which didn’t have the amount of numbers its predecessors had, is ultimately a musical. The lack of numbers used to propel the plot seems to be a phasing out of the Disney Animated Film formula since the next animated feature that wasn’t Fantasia 2000 didn’t have any musical numbers. (That film was Atlantis: The Lost Empire.) Unfortunately, the songs that Phil Collins sings are not that catchy except for “Two Worlds” at the beginning of the film because they start to sound the same. Mark Mancina’s score is much more interesting and memorable because of its use of percussion instruments to invoke a jungle tribal sound.

As for villains, while the film serves up three antagonists, the “villain” in this film is Clayton. Clayton just looks creepy and there’s a sense that he’s up to no good, but he doesn’t start to get menacing until the very end. And when he does get menacing, its not pretty. But while most villains are well-established in the film as being a bad guy, Clayton just seems to be a pretty shady guy for most of the film.

Tarzan also features two Cute Little Animal Characters: Terk and Tantor. Terk is the most annoying, unnecessary Cute Little Animal Character in any of the films I’ve watched. Tantor, on the other hand, even with his neurosis, is an interesting and useful character. He helps rescue the characters and becomes an aid to the gorilla tribe. Had the film had just one sidekick, Tantor, it might have been more interesting. But then Tarzan would have never met Tantor had it not been for a stupid dare Terk gave Tarzan as a kid.

Tarzan is far from being one of Disney’s best films of the decade, but it’s a beautiful film that shows off Disney’s ability to create visually stunning films. It has its flaws but it is the last great animated film that Disney made for a while.

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