Well, we made it. This is the last movie is the so-called Disney Renaissance. Personally, I think this movie is extremely under appreciated. I was 14 when this came out, and it struck a chord with me that I still can’t really describe. I’ll try my best.
I’m actually surprised Disney hadn’t adapted Tarzan before this. After Walt’s love of adapting old books and classics into family friendly fanfare, I would have expected this to be on his list. Maybe it was, and he died before he could get it out there. We’ll never know. Anyway, this movie is based on Tarzan and the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, a magazine published the novel published in 1912 and 1914 respectively. It followed the life of our titular Tarzan, a man raised by apes and later (in subsequent novels) integrated into human society with less than happy endings. Disney’s movie, story wise, seems to be pretty close to the first novel. A few things were changed, but I understand why they were (we’ll delve into that later). Let’s find out about our ape-man now, shall we?
We are introduced to our titular character as a baby, when we see his parents survive a shipwreck and wash ashore. They end up building an amazing treehouse in the jungle only to get eaten by a leopard named Sabor. At the same time, we meet the gorillas Tarzan will call his family. We watch as a little baby gorilla is eaten by the same leopard (seriously disney? Murder and infanticide in the first 5 minutes?). Distraught, Kala, the mother gorilla, hears Tarzan crying and goes and rescues him from Sabor. After talking the Silverback, Kerchak, into keeping him, she takes to raising him as her own.
Fast forward maybe 8 years(?) and we see Tarzan as a kid struggling to fit in. He’s not a good climber, he’s not as fast as the other gorillas, and Kerchak doesn’t seem to like him very much. We meet his friend Terk, who dares him to get the hair from an elephant to fit in. After causing a stampede, Kerchak gets mad and Tarzan goes off. He doesn’t understand why he’s different. Kala attempts to explain to him that although they look different on the outside, he and the gorillas are all the same inside. A renewed sense of hope, Tarzan decides he’s going to make Kerchak accept him by working hard to be the best ape ever.
Fast forward and Tarzan is now an adult. After rescuing the tribe from Sabor, Tarzan almost gets the acceptance he’s wanted when they hear a strange loud noise (a gun shot) Kerchak orders everyone to move but Tarzan is curious. He follows the noises to find three humans have come into the jungle. After the shock of finding creatures that look like him, he rescues the woman, Jane, from a baboon attack. Smitten with her, he returns to her camp the next day against the request of Kerchak and begins to learn more about humans. Turns out they’ve come to study gorillas, and believe he’s the key to leading them to the creatures. but Tarzan knows it would be dangerous.
One day tarzan arrives at camp to find it being torn down. The boat has come to take them back to London. Our Villain, Clayton, talks Tarzan into showing them where the gorillas are, saying that Jane will stay if she sees gorillas. They distract Kerchak, the humans see the gorillas, Clayton marks where they are, Kerchak comes back, and Tarzan is forced to restrain him. Struck with the disbelief in what he’s done, tarzan runs. Kala goes after him and shows him the treehouse and explains where he’s really from, telling him whatever choice he makes she just wants him to be happy.
Tarzan decides to go with Jane back to London, however upon getting on the boat, find there’s been a coup. Clayton throws them in the cargo area and heads back with cages to capture the gorillas. Tarzan breaks out with the help of some friends, they go fight off clayton, and eventually everyone lives happily ever after.
This movie, to me, has a lot more pluses than minuses. Is it perfect? No. Is it good? Honestly, I can see how people don’t like this movie. For me, I can say that yes, it is good. The reason I love it so much is the relationships between the characters we get in this movie. Each group or combination of characters really does well together, and this is one of the strengths of the movie. This doesn’t mean that I love all the individual characters; in fact some of them are perhaps the blandest in Disney’s canon. Let’s start with our titular character, Tarzan.
Tarzan is a little…. blah. Sure he is trying to fit in and sure he seems like a sensitive but brave kid and a lovestruck adult that is just trying to figure out who he is… but that’s ALL he is. He’s not funny or overly charming (He’s actually probably one of the more serious character in the movie… as an adult…). He speaks in monotone when he talks to the humans (which I know ok is probably because he’s learning but come on!). He will raise his voice to Kerchak and WILL stand up for what he believes, but the other half of the time he’s sulking and just does’t know what to think or what to do. At the same time, I can’t get mad, because he’s realistic. If you were brought up by a group of creatures who looked nothing like you and you were an outcast your entire life, you’d probably be this way too. As a kid, he’s more interesting than he is when he was an adult. Why is that? He hasn’t been completely burned yet. He hasn’t let the fact he’s different drag him down. He’s still optimistic. As an adult, he’s just decided through trials that yeah, he’s different, there’s nothing he can do about it, and those who like him will like him. But it made him serious. His character design is a bit bizarre, but I know Disney consulted with people about muscles and whatnot for his body type. It’s realistic, and that’s cool. Whoever came up with giving the kid dreads was brilliant. I mean, he does live in the jungle and has never taken a bath.
In this movie, Tarzan really is the central character, but we have a LOT of supporting cast to help him out. Let’s start with the gorilla side and work our way to the humans and the villain. One of my favorite characters in this movie and by far one of the best Disney mothers hands down is Kala. She’s strong-willed and stands up to not only the Leopard Sabor but Kerchak when she first rescues Tarzan. She’s understanding and willing to put up with everything that Tarzan and the other Gorillas throw at her. She communicates in such a way that teaches Tarzan our central Disney lesson: On the inside, we are all the same. But Kala isn’t all just rainbows and wonderfulness. She has flaws. She’s frightened of the humans that she doesn’t know and sides with Kerchak when he says they shouldn’t go close to them. She’s conflicted because she wants her son to be happy, which in the end means telling him the truth and letting him choose his own path. Kala = awesome.
Leading the troop of Gorillas we have Kerchak. I honestly don’t really know what to say about him. He’s a bit of a trope: overbearing leader. Sure he also seems to have this kind interior that’s really hard to get to, but he’s pretty much just overbearing, especially to Tarzan. He’s a silverback: his job is protecting his family from anything he sees as a threat. For Disney’s sake there are moments when he seems to almost welcome Tarzan with open arms, but it isn’t till the end that he finally understands that even though he looks different, Tarzan has always been one of them.
Our other two sidekicks on the gorillas side are Terk, Tarzan’s best gorilla friend, and Tantor, the elephant that…. lives with them? Seriously, what’s up with Tantor? we see his family in the beginning, then suddenly he’s traveling with the gorillas. Is Kerchak ok with him? I’ve never gotten that! But anyway, I digress. Terk is a tomboyish gorilla who thinks she’s cool and acts all tough and leader-like when really she’s just fine hanging out with Tarzan and doesn’t seem to care what the others think. You almost get the sense that Kerchak doesn’t like her either, but they never come out and say that. She’s loyal to him when no one else is, and I respect that. Tantor, on the other hand, is a 2 ton scaredy cat with some of the best lines in the movie. He doesn’t have much else to his personality, but the two of them are enjoyable together. Their interactions are some of the best in the movie.
On the human side we have, of course, Jane Porter. Voiced by Minnie Driver, she serves as love interest to Tarzan. Just like Mulan, Jane is a bit more “do it yourself” kind of character, a trait we will see continued in Disney Heroines in years to come. She’s out in the middle of the jungle (yes at first in a dress but then she wises up), drawing and researching alongside her father. This was unheard of at the time, and it’s nice to see a woman who is all about biology discoveries. She sees Tarzan at first as a strange “missing link” that she somehow has this attraction to but is almost afraid to admit it. She has this inner conflict the entire movie about what to feel toward him and again (just like Tarzan) where her place really is.
Her father is just as enjoyable if not more so. He’s a crazy old guy who lives and breathes his work and is out to prove that gorillas are not just monsters (as was the view at the time). He provides the comic relief on the human side. In all honesty that all that needs to be said about him!
Now our villain is Clayton. As far as Disney villains go, he’s kinda…. eh. He IS evil. You can tell from the first moment you meet him that he’s the villain, but it’s not as cut and dry as Scar or Maleficent. He’s posing as the muscle for our two biologists so that he can find gorillas, capture them, and sell them to zoos for a profit. In other words, he’s a poacher. I’ve never really liked Clayton much, and there’s really nothing that defines him as a particularly horrid character. He’s creepy and you can tell he’s smart, but nothing really makes him stand out from other Disney villains. He does have a cool death that ends in a hanging though…
The animation on this movie is beautiful. I honestly didn’t realize this until I started research for my review, but the vast majority of this movie is animated using 2D rendered on a 3D background. Knowing that, it makes sense, because some of the angles of the shots you’re just like “what? how does that work?” The fact it doesn’t interfere is pretty good. (fun fact: Lassiter told Disney they should use this technique much earlier than they did. Apparently Disney reacted by pretty much telling him it wasn’t a good idea). I do have a few issues with this though: the scene where Tarzan rescues Jane from the baboons goes on FOREVER. It’s like they were trying to show off their animation. It’s just too much. I have also never understood the potbellies on the design of the gorillas. In all other ways, these gorillas are beautifully animated. Their bellies look fine when they’re sitting upright, but you get them to move on all fours and you get this weird distended stomach thing. Real gorillas aren’t quite that bad…
The music in this movie is great, but different. Out of the 6-ish songs we have, only 2 are sung by characters themselves (1 is actually only half sung). The others are all sung by Phil Collins, usually during a montage. There are a LOT of montages in this movie. Granted, we do need some if not all of them, and songs are a good way to describe feeling during a thing like a montage where lots of time passes. It’s just kinda disappointing because I know that after this movie, Disney seemed to take a break from it’s “musicals.” But how are the songs themselves? Personally, I adore these songs. I have always enjoyed me some Phil, and these are just as good. “Son of Man” is a favorite, as is “You’ll be in my heart.” I do have one I despise – “Trashin’ the Camp.” Talk about a completely pointless song. Phil is a percussionist, so I understand his want to put a percussion song in the movie, but seriously…. that song added nothing. nothing.
Before I list a few final thoughts on this movie, I do want to talk about what I think are this movies major strengths. I mentioned the relationships the characters in this movie have. A lot of these relationships are believable as well as incredibly deep. Kala and Tarzan are remarkable together. Every time these two characters are on screen together I want to cry (I do actually in the scene where he says goodbye). The scene where Tarzan covers himself with dirt to be like the gorillas and what she teaches him is PERFECT.
Another thing I LOVE about this movie is (this is me being a giant nerd) how science-y it is. I was a biology major in college, and every time I see the Porters get excited about little things in the wilderness, I get excited because I know what that feels like. They portray it well, and they also portray the whole opinion of Gorillas in the 1800s perfectly. People really DID think these creatures were monsters. Scientists really WERE doing research proving they were different but they weren’t believed. The thought that gorillas lived in groups and made nests and groomed each other and communicated. These were all things that people at the time were learning, and this movie is a reminder of that.
I haven’t talked much about the message of this movie, but that’s honestly because I feel like I don’t need to. It’s similar to the message in Pocahontas actually: The acceptance of those who are different and finding where you belong. The only difference is this movie doesn’t pound you over the head with it. It’s subtle and you learn it through the trials and emotions of our characters. There isn’t much to say. It’s well done.
Now here’s some last minute thoughts that I don’t need to delve into:
~ Sabor is the Leopard that kills Tarzan’s parents and Kala’s first baby then attempts to attack them later. That’s all good, but he’s drawn as a jaguar which lives in South America. Yes maybe only a bio nerd like me would see that but I don’t care. It bugs me.
~Tarzan surfing on mossy branches is equally weird. It’s like they were trying to make him “cool.” It doesn’t fit his personality.
~Tarzan marked the last film (short or feature length) to win an Academy award for 13 years, when the short Paperman (2012) won.
~Has anyone ever noticed that the way Kerchak says “You came back” when Tarzan returns to help him is EXACTLY like the way the Beast said it when Bell came back? inflection and everything.
~Some scenes in this movie never get old. Some are so incredibly funny. This is also a strength of the movie. The comic writing is brilliant (except for that elephant trunk/periscope thing…)
I personally enjoy this movie a lot, and feel that a lot of people feel the same way. But I also feel the way I do about Mulan. I feel like this movie gets overlooked a lot when it shouldn’t. It’s enjoyable and really good. It’s not perfect, but not every movie has to be. Give it a watch if you’ve never seen it. You won’t be disappointed.
I give Tarzan (1999) a 3.9 out of 5.
Up Next: Fantasia (1940) – yes this is out of order but I forgot to do it and figured I’d do this and Fantasia 2000 back to back for comparison.