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Disney Sundays: Tarzan (1999)

          When Disney’s Tarzan came out, I wasn’t really excited for it. Mainly because to my little kid eyes it looked a lot like The Jungle Book, and I already had The Jungle Book. But eventually I did end up seeing it and wound up enjoying it. Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan was Disney’s take on a property that had already been done a number of times on film. The famous jungle man from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels had been the focus of a ton of movies from the earliest days of cinema. Because of Tarzan’s popularity, this was one of those instances where Disney had expectations to surpass. And checking out the movie again so many years later, I’m perhaps more surprised than you would be that Tarzan is actually pretty good.
          The story begins with a British couple and their infant son escaping a burning ship. After building a home for themselves on an isolated land, the husband and wife are killed by a leopard called Sabor, but their son is found by a gorilla Kala who recently lost her own child, also to Sabor. She saves Tarzan and raises him despite the objections of the alpha gorilla Kerchak. He grows up determined to prove himself as a great ape, before unexpectedly encountering other humans on a sightseeing expedition, and finds himself torn between the world he was raised in and his own kind.
          One of the things that appealed to me initially about Tarzan was that it raised a question I’d wondered about in The Jungle Book: what would it be like if Mowgli encountered other humans? Of course we saw Mowgli meet a girl at the end of the movie, and though cute it felt dishonest. A feral person would have a very different reaction, one much closer to what was presented in this film. The themes of home, family, and belonging are key to this movie, as they have been to plenty of movies in the past, but in Tarzan it’s exceptionally stark. Though like a lot of movies with these ideas, the message favours the life he’s made rather than the one that awaits him, but you understand his confusion. You also understand how he can be so easily manipulated. The glimpse into Tarzan’s childhood may exist only to indicate he still hasn’t been accepted, but the story is told well with some very impressive visuals and interesting characters. My main problem with the story though is the way it dealt with Sabor. Though Sabor is responsible for not only the deaths of Tarzan’s parents, but also of Kala’s son, that arc is resolved surprisingly early on. On the one hand I give the film credit for doing something unexpected, considering how much the leopard was being built up to be the primary villain, and the sequence where he fights Tarzan has a lot of good action and is executed well. But Sabor represents the origin of Tarzan and is connected intimately with the ape-man he’s become. This relationship isn’t apparent with the succeeding villain Clayton, and so the final confrontation between hero and villain doesn’t feel as big or as earned. If Sabor had survived until the end, if he had killed Clayton and then went up against Tarzan, you can bet it would be more engaging and you’d be more invested. It would both give Clayton a good demise (rather than simply going the way of Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist) and provide a more worthwhile vengeance on Tarzan’s part for his lost parents. 
          By the way, I’d half-buy that theory that Tarzan is the secret brother of Anna and Elsa if it weren’t for the fact he was clearly born in a civilized setting to have his photograph taken. Tarzan’s a decently interesting protagonist, even if his personality seems a bit standard Disney by this point. He’s no Aladdin, but he’s better than Hercules. Voiced by Tony Goldwyn he definitely does convey well the sense of awe and anxiety for the humans he comes across. The heart of the movie is Tarzan’s relationship with Kala (the Disney mother who lived) which is very warm and loving. It’s weird considering it’s a gorilla mother figure to a human, but it really works. Hell, the scene where she shows him the treehouse where she found him and his subsequent decision to go to England, is downright sad. Glenn Close voices Kala in a way that’s very reminiscent of some of her better appearances as Mona Simpson. Being such an emotional tether to Tarzan’s place among the apes, she’s one of the best parts of the movie. I think she is overshadowed though by Jane, who may be one of my favourite Disney characters. On paper you couldn’t ask for a more archetypal damsel in distress (in fact she’s probably closer to that term than any other Disney character), being prone to screaming and very often in need of rescue. But she’s got such a likeable and distinct personality. She’s the first Disney female lead to actually be a comedic character! Sure, Ariel, Jasmine, Mulan, etc. have had the occasional funny line, but Jane has a range of comedic expressions and character quirks. Like how she acts out what she observes, and struggles to articulate things. The scene where Tarzan saves her from baboons though overly ridiculous, is funny in how she reacts to everything, and the later scene where she recounts this adventure to her companions is perfectly goofy. Having the voice of Minnie Driver helps, as does having a design that’s very purposely imperfect (characterized by a small nose, somewhat naturally unruly hair, a lack of control over her excessive garments, and traditional British buckteeth). I think it actually makes for a prettier design. Her relationship with Tarzan is just okay though. That initial scene between them in the tree is great but after that, their romance isn’t the most interesting. It’s not bad by any means, I just don’t know if I buy it enough for Jane Porter to become Jane Goodall by the end. As for the intimidating Kerchak, it’s about time Bishop from Aliens turned up in a Disney movie! He provides for some good conflict, his motivations are understandable, and of course Lance Henriksen is a very welcome voice. Concerning the contractually obligated comic relief, Tantor the elephant gets a couple funny lines, but that’s mostly because of Wayne Knight; and Terk doesn’t have much going for her except for the fact that she’s voiced by Rosie O’Donnell. In fact the first couple times I watched the movie I thought Terk was a guy -neither the design nor the voice are in any way effeminate. Also, I notice now that Terk and the other young apes have very much a 90’s kids vibe to them (the “stop hitting yourself” bit is particularly dated). The only other poorer characters are the Professor voiced by Nigel Hawthorne who’s just underdeveloped, and the villain Clayton voiced by the badass Brian Blessed. Though I love his Clark-Gable-in-Mogambo design, Clayton is pretty one-dimensional. Even past Disney hunter villains like Amos and McLeach had something more to them, but Clayton just wants to hunt gorillas. He does still have the awesome voice of Brian Blessed though...
          But the thing you can’t ignore when talking about Disney’s Tarzan is the music. And you know what, I have to confess: I actually don’t mind the Phil Collins soundtrack. Yeah, the main thing that seems to turn people off to this movie, I don’t have a problem with! Sure a lot of the criticisms are valid: the songs are more than a little distracting, and did Phil Collins really have to sing them himself? Because of the nature of the songs, they mostly take the form of montages which do slightly hurt the films’ overall pacing by not letting us see as much of Tarzan’s growth as we could.  The first song “Two Worlds” is also problematic in just how much it detracts from the emotional weight of Kala losing her kid. This is a serious death and grief scene, but we’re not given time to engage with it due to the song. It’s the one time I feel the film is focussing more on Collins than a really important moment. But that being said, the songs on their own aren’t bad, and the montages set to them are really well animated and tie into the story reasonably well. Each song connects with a monumental development and/or important theme. “Two Worlds” in its title reinforces Tarzan’s primary conflict, “Son of Man” characterizes his coming-of-age and perseverance, and “Strangers Like Me” does a great job conveying Tarzan’s enthusiasm at this new world. “You’ll Be in My Heart” as the movie’s love theme is actually really nice and I think deserving of its Academy Award win. I think these songs are used sparingly, Phil Collins isn’t the worst, and generally they feel organic to the story. And as I said, the strong animation helps. Though this jungle’s not as diverse as The Jungle Book, it’s still very well rendered, a good mix of exotic and mysterious. Both the human and animal characters look great, there are some intense action sequences, and the fast pace of the animation combined with the elaborate detail of the jungle makes for some really exciting sequences. Everyone slides so gracefully along tree-branches, and often we’re tracking with Tarzan as he does this, so we’re privy to every obstacle in his way, every movement and physical position he has to make and it really gives the animation a rampant energy that’s not quite like anything Disney’s done before. 
          Tarzan’s considered by many to be the last film of the Disney Renaissance. I disagree a little as you’ll find out next week, but it was the last of a certain kind of Disney movie, at least for a while. It’s not great, but it is a pretty good and I’d even say overlooked Disney entry. It had a few great characters, some excellent animation, a very well done story and themes, and even I’d argue some under-appreciated songs. Given the quality of a lot of the Tarzan movies, historically being very campy and borderline hyper-masculine, it’s good to have one that tries and mostly succeeds at taking itself seriously, and reinventing the character in a way that resonates with younger audiences.

Next Week: Fantasia 2000 (1999)

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