A Study in Disney: ‘Tarzan’ (1999)

| January 24, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Tarzan (1999) – Mutant Reviewers

As the millennium was drawing to a close Walt Disney Animation was experiencing a massive glut of competition from other studios that, in its long and storied history, it had never really had to deal with.  For decades Disney had dominated the animated film market, but then the Disney Renaissance revitalized movie animation into a pure art form that had given studios outside of Disney the confidence to produce their own work. 

From this would come the entities of 20th Century Fox Animation, Blue Sky Studios, Illumination, Nickelodeon Animation, Warner Bros. Animation, Sony Pictures ImageWorks and, of course, Pixar – which at this moment was in a contract dispute with Disney over Toy Story 2.    The most visible competitor to Disney in the last two years of the 20th century was Dreamworks, a brand-new studio that was partnered with Amblin Entertainment and founded by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg.  The creative explosion coming from those other studios meant that Disney needed to up its game.  They did not, and the decision to adapt Tarzan into a Disney picture would not only end the Disney Renaissance but lead to a creative slump wrought by in-fighting between CEO Michael Eisner and Walt’s nephew Roy that brought about some less-than-spectacular efforts (stay tuned).

This is not to suggest that Disney made a bad decision acquiring the character and turning it into a movie.  Tarzan would seem to be perfect for Disney animation, particularly in the era of computer graphics at least as far as the action scenes go, but to pry this story from Edgar Rice Burrows’ work requires a better understanding and a much better psychology of the character.  In the first book “Tarzan of the Jungle”, published in 1912, Tarzan has been orphaned as an infant when his parents are shipwrecked off the West Coast of Africa and both are killed.  He is raised to manhood in the wild by a (fictional) group of apes called Mangani – an African word for “Great Ape” – and learns a language of grunts and intonations.  For much of his life, Tarzan is spaced away from his own kind and never learns of his own identity until sometime before his teen years when he finds his parent’s former cabin where he learns something of his true self from the photos they left behind.

Here is where the Disney movie stumbles right out of the gate.  When Tarzan is adopted by the Mangani, the apes speak English – fluid English – and they have human characteristics that they pass on to Tarzan.  This is absolutely the wrong approach.  The Tarzan legend is supposed to be that a man is raised by apes in the natural environment, but this movie seems to give its animal characters the anthropomorphic characteristics of The Jungle Book (including an annoying shoo-bee-doo swing number that feels wildly out of place).  The movie wants to have it both ways and for this material that doesn’t work.

The entire crux of the Tarzan character is that he is a white Englishman spaced away from civilized man and raised in the wild by apes. so why have the apes speak English?  Doesn’t that negate what he learns when he comes in contact with white men?  What does he have to learn if he already speaks English?  Wouldn’t it seem more fitting to have the apes behave like real animals and act in pantomime?  Wouldn’t that give a much more challenging journey to Tarzan when he meets Jane?  Since the apes speak English and Tarzan speaks English, where is the language barrier?  This misstep undercuts Tarzan’s confused understanding about his own identity.  Who is he?  A man or an ape?  If the bridge is already built for him, what does he have to learn?

But the movie only lightly brushes against the questions of Tarzan’s identity.  The story would prefer to press harder on the environmental message about the noble creatures living in nature and the intrusion of the white man who comes to hunt them into extinction.  The anti-hunting element comes into the story with the arrival of an English hunter named Clayton whose eyebrows and mustache let you know that he’s evil.  But why is this necessary?  Why toss is yet another Disney villain who is a soulless violent sociopath?  There is a cheetah character who appears early in the film that kills Tarzan’s parents and kills one of the Mangini children.  Why not make him the villain?  Or, why not just let the dangers of the jungle be the villain.  Why do we need to resort to another antagonist that we’ve seen a million times?

The movie, from an analytical standpoint moves back and forth.  The issues of the talking apes and the run-of-the-mill villain can’t be avoided, but neither can the film’s virtues.  This is a gorgeous looking movie as are all of the films of The Disney Renaissance.  The animators here have created the African jungle as a living breathing place that seems alive and moving at all times.  The backgrounds are lush and green in their natural beauty, setting the gorilla tribe into a place that is both breathtaking and forbidding.

Tarzan’s actions here seem surprisingly new.  While a lot of the story does seem, at times, run-of-the-mill, the idea of having him move through the trees by surfing on the branches feels fresh and original.  It is one thing to have him swing on branches but to have him sail and surf among the greenery is a showcase of motion that only animation could capture.  There is a breathtaking sequence in which he tries to rescue Jane who is inches from falling to her death but he moves through the trees almost gliding from one area to the next.  There is also something to be said for his design, which allows his hands and feet to seem more like paws.  When he climbs trees, the development of his extremities makes this seem a bit more plausible.  Plus, his movements are terrific too.  When he drops to the ground, he doesn’t drop like a man but like an ape.  It’s an effective touch especially when compared to the more dainty and mannered movements of Jane.

Unfortunately the relationship between Tarzan and Jane is not really developed all that well.  There is some tenderness in their union and some poignancy to the fact that he’s never seen a white man, let alone a white woman.  When they touch hands for the first time, it is quite beautiful, but again it is undercut by the fact that we have heard Tarzan speaking English and understanding human behavior for the past half hour.  What is he reaching out to learn?  Plus, large and important parts of their relationship are developed in a montage that is overrun by the annoying intrusion of some disembodied Phil Collins percussion noise called “Strangers Like Me.”  Why?  Why not let the natural beauty speak for itself?  Why do we need Phil Collins warbling about nonsense?  For Disney, this doesn’t work, especially with Collins, whose ballads are very urban and don’t fit with the African landscape – was there not an African musician or an African choral group who could handle the soundtrack?  Why do we need Phil Collins here?

And speaking of Africans . . . where are they?  Here is a movie that takes place in the deepest heart of the African Jungle circa 1864 and yet there is never an appearance by any Africans, be they tribesmen or city-dwellers.  Isn’t it interesting that here is a movie that takes place on this massive beautiful continent and the indigenous people are nowhere to be found.

Inclusion of African tribesmen could have helped to clear up one of the most common complaints about the Tarzan legend in that on screen they were always portrayed as uncivilized savages who wanted to run away with Jane.  But this movie could have turned that idea around, portraying the Africans as allies of Tarzan who helped him in his fight against English poachers.  Even a suggestion of their presence might have been something.  It might have been a chance, in the era of political correctness, to give the native Africans a chance to be seen as human beings.  Their absence feels like a glaring omission.

For these reasons, and many more, Tarzan is both a virtue and a curse.  Its good points are equal to its bad points but given the animated non-Disney product that was arriving at the end of the century, this one comes off as very middle-of-the-road.  It is not a bad film, despite the objections laid out above, but it doesn’t thunder and roar as loudly as it should.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.