Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck
In the 19th century, a couple and their newborn son are marooned off the coast of Africa by a shipwreck. Both parents are killed by a leopard, and a gorilla who’d recently lost her own child finds the orphaned baby and adopts it as her own, naming him Tarzan. The young Tarzan grows up to be adventurous and inquisitive, but is never fully accepted as a member of the gorilla troop due to his different appearance – especially by the troop’s leader, Tarzan’s adoptive father Kerchak.
When Tarzan is in his early 20s, his life is disrupted by the arrival of new humans for the first time: two English zoologists and researchers, along with their porters and jungle guide, the bloodthirsty Clayton. When the young woman in the group, Jane, becomes separated and is attacked by baboons, Tarzan reveals himself to save her. Despite being warned to stay away from the other humans by Kerchak, Tarzan is intrigued by these creatures that look like himself. He starts to spend time at their camp, learning about European civilization from the researchers and being taught rudimentary English. He refuses to lead them to any gorillas (the object of their expedition), however, out of fear that Kerchak would harm them.
Eventually, the ship arrives to take the group back to England. Heartbroken that Jane will be leaving, Tarzan is convinced by Clayton that Jane will stay if he shows her the gorillas. He does so, but they are chased off by an enraged Kerchak. Tarzan’s mother finally decided to tell him the truth about his parents, and shows him the ruins of the treehouse that they’d built as castaways. Tarzan comes to the decision that he doesn’t belong in the jungle, and prepares to leave with Jane on the boat.
When he boards the vessel, however, Clayton’s men jump him and lock him up with the researchers. He reveals that he’s really a poacher, and was using the explorers to find the location of the gorilla troop so he could capture and sell them. Tarzan’s friends break him out, and he rushes to save his family. Kerchak is shot by Clayton, but Tarzan fights with him, and Clayton ends up tangled in vines and accidentally hangs himself. Kerchak dies from his wounds, but appoints Tarzan as the new leader of the troop, and Jane decides to stay with him in the jungle.
Kevin Lima, who had directed the movie spinoff of Disney’s TV series Goof Troop, was approached by Jeffrey Katzenberg with the idea for a Tarzan movie in 1994, to be animated by the same TV unit in Canada. Even though Katzenberg left the company soon after, chairman Michael Eisner was still interested in the project, having realized that there had never been an animated version of Tarzan before. However, he didn’t want to do it on the cheap, and bumped the film up to the main animation studio.
It took several years for them to turn Edgar Rice Burroughs’s book into a workable story for a Disney movie. They ended up having to depart fairly significantly from the source material to avoid a lot of the book’s racist depictions of Africans, and decided to have him stay in the jungle instead of leaving for England like he does in the novel. That meant adding an actual villain to the story, in the form of Clayton (in the books, Clayton is Tarzan’s asshole cousin who becomes Jane’s fiancé).
Once again, production was split between two continents, with animators in California and Europe having to coordinate via phone and fax machine (though at least this time they had some rudimentary video conferencing software they could use). The lead animators also went on an African safari, including a trip into Uganda to observe wild gorillas. When it came time to animate Tarzan’s traveling through the jungle, they didn’t want to do the stereotypical swinging on vines from live-action Tarzan films. Glen Keane, Tarzan’s animator, was introduced to Tony Hawk by his son, an extreme sports fan, and he decided to base Tarzan’s motions on skateboarding and surfing moves. To animate the backgrounds on these scenes, they had to invent an entire new 3D painting and rendering program, which they named Deep Canvas (which would win the team a Technical Oscar in 2003).
Early on in production, the directors decided to break with the Disney Renaissance tradition by not having Tarzan sing (as co-director Lima said in an interview, “I just couldn’t see this half-naked man sitting on a branch breaking out in song”). Disney execs still insisted on it being a musical, however, so they decided to go the unusual route of having a single narrator sing all of the songs. Phil Collins had already been brought in to write the music in the wake of Elton John’s success with The Lion King, so it made sense to have him sing them all as well.
Tarzan’s opening weekend was Disney’s second-highest ever (after The Lion King), and notably beat the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, at the box office that week. It was the first Disney animated film to open at #1 since Pocahontas, and it went on to be the fifth-highest grossing movie worldwide that year. It was a big hit with critics, too, some of which compared its breakthroughs in 3D animation to the similar watershed in effects produced by The Matrix earlier in the year.
The decade from 1989 to 1999 is generally seen as the high water mark in Disney’s animated canon. Collectively known as the Renaissance, it contains some of the most beloved animated movies of all time. Though I’ve been relatively down on the films from the back half of that period, I think that they managed to go out on a high note here. Before this rewatch, most of my memory of the movie involved Phil Collins’s Oscar-bait song “You’ll Be in My Heart.” But now, I think that Tarzan might be just as, if not even more overlooked than Hunchback was.
I’ll start by saying that every bit of praise that those critics lavished on the film’s visuals back in 1999 is absolutely justified. The animation in the film, and especially Tarzan’s big jungle-surfing moment in the “Son of Man” sequence, is nothing short of breathtaking. Sure, there are moments when the CG and hand-drawn animation don’t fit well together. But on the whole, the Deep Canvas backgrounds and the attention the animators paid to actual anatomy and musculature pay off spectacularly. There are scenes here that are every bit as revolutionary as the stampede sequence from The Lion King or the flight segments from Rescuers Down Under.
Part of the reason that the movie faded so quickly from the public consciousness might be that, unlike all but one of the other Renaissance films, Tarzan is not a musical. One of the defining traits of the Renaissance period is that the movies are structured as Broadway musicals, with “I want” songs, villain songs, and big end-of-Act-1 production numbers (think “Be Our Guest” or “Friend Like Me”). In a move that signaled Disney’s direction for the next decade, the only time a character sings in Tarzan is the short snippet of “You’ll Be in My Heart” that Kala sings to Tarzan before Phil Collins takes over. There’s plenty of songs in the movie, and I think that they’re all above-average for Disney. But since they serve mostly as background music to the action taking place on-screen (instead of being an integral part of said action), the movie really feels substantially different from the previous decade of movies.
Tarzan also has a bit of a villain problem. Clayton is like a combination of Gaston and McLeach from Rescuers Down Under, only without Gaston’s charming exterior or McLeach’s real menace. He’s suspicious and trigger-happy from the start, so it’s obvious that he’s going to be an antagonist, but he also doesn’t do all that much until the last 10-15 minutes of the movie. And when he does make his move, his first act is to…tie up the entire crew of a British steamship? What was going to be his next move, sail to Bermuda and raise the Jolly Roger? Clayton’s definitely the weakest part of the movie, and feels jammed in more out of an executive need to have a human villain than for any real narrative reason.
That’s a shame, too, because they cast everyone’s favorite British overactor, BRIAN BLESSED!, for the role, and then never really let him do his thing. Clayton as written could have been played by pretty much any actor, so why hire (and then waste) an actor with a reputation for being one of the largest hams in existence? It’s like casting a renowned Shakespearian actor as a literal talking piece of shit.
Villain issues aside, this is actually a well-done animated adventure movie with some of most outstanding visuals of the 1990s. Sure, it might not be an actual musical, but the soundtrack works a lot better than I remembered, and not having the characters sing puts the focus right on the movie’s biggest asset. I still prefer Hunchback and Mulan to Tarzan, but this is one that I really didn’t have high expectations for based on my memories of seeing it in high school, and I’m really pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did.
Animation: A (I think this is the best a Disney movie has ever looked up to this point, and Deep Canvas is a revelation)
Main Characters: A- (This is the first version of Tarzan to really feel like he was actually raised in the jungle instead of just an actor playing someone who was)
Supporting Characters: B (I like Minne Driver’s scatterbrained Jane, even though I know some other reviewers don’t. The animal sidekicks don’t get much to do, but their personalities are fairly well-developed)
Villains: D (They wasted BRIAN BLESSED!)
Songs: B+ (The soundtrack worked a lot better than I’d remembered, even for it not being a musical)