Usually I talk about the movie’s development or reception first, but for this, I’ll begin with my personal history with the movie. The movie released in 1999, 14 days after my 12th birthday. At the time, I was very much looking forward to my teenaged years and was trying to grow up too fast. Even more so than when Mulan released. I allowed myself to think that the trailers for Tarzan looked silly and that the movie was just for kids. So I didn’t see Tarzan until about a year after it released, at my aunt and uncle’s house when they took care of us for a weekend. My desire to grow up too fast didn’t let me enjoy it as much as I probably would have otherwise, and I haven’t seen it since.
So coming into this movie now, I had no preconceived notions of how I’d feel about it, and I wanted to keep it that way. The world’s first animated Tarzan movie did fairly well though, earning $448 million on a $120 million budget. That makes it the third most profitable movie of the Disney Renaissance, behind only Aladdin and The Lion King. Critics gave it a positive reception with an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 79% on Metacritic. It did well enough to spawn a Broadway, two straight to DVD sequels and a short lived TV series.
Entertainment Weekly compared the movie’s visuals to The Matrix, praising its “neat computer-generated background work”. Although it wasn’t as praised as the first half of the Disney Renaissance, it did better than any other movie in the second half, both critically and commercially. After watching it again after all these years I must agree. Disney’s Tarzan is pretty good. It’s by no means perfect and I’ll get into why, but it’s a very enjoyable movie and well worth checking out if the story of Tarzan interests you.
Tarzan began its production in 1995. When Disney Studios learned early on that it would be the first animated Tarzan movie, everyone was surprised that nobody had done it before. Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney’s animation arm at the time, said “Here is a book that cries out to be animated. Yet we’re the first filmmakers to have ever taken Tarzan from page to screen and presented the character as Burroughs intended.” He went on to comment that connecting humans with animals would be much easier in animation than in live action.
For a time they considered taking Tarzan to England in the movie for the third act, but decided that went against the movie’s themes of family and belonging. Also funny enough, Brendan Fraser auditioned for the role of Tarzan twice, which helped him land his role in George of the Jungle instead.
The animation was split into two studios, one in Paris, France and the other in Burbank, California. The 6000 mile difference made things difficult, especially when one studio supervised Tarzan’s animation while the other focused on Jane. To help out, they used “scene machine” to send each other rough drawings between the two studios. Thankfully it ended up looking seamless in the final product. The movie also uses more CGI than any previous Disney film. It looks like almost half of the environments are digital when I watched it, and it’s all very well detailed. The movie also features a number of scenes of Tarzan branch and vine surfing, with all the surfing surfaces done digitally.
The surfing is the main thing that bugged me when I first saw the trailer years ago. Watching it now, I recognize it as the most visually creative element of the film. It makes for some very exciting and occasionally funny action scenes. The audience’s view moves so fast and so smooth through the jungle that there’s no way they could possibly replicate it in real life. I felt that some of these scenes went on a bit longer than they should have, but they’re still a joy to watch. As a whole, this is easily the most visually impressive Disney movie of the 90’s, and with movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Lion King both making huge advancements in animation technology, that’s saying a lot.
The soundtrack was composed by the Mark Mancina, who previously helped Hans Zimmer on The Lion King. He focused on obscure instruments from his personal collection to compliment the movie’s setting. Phil Collins, who recently left his band Genesis, worked closely with Mancina and also composed and wrote all of the movie’s songs. The soundtrack works great for the movie, and Collins’ music is also generally good. “You’ll Be In My Heart” ended up winning both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Original Song and deservedly so. On that note, the soundtrack album won the Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album.
With all that said, Collins’s music is also the movie’s biggest disadvantage. Not because it isn’t good, but because it plays over the movie instead of either allowing the characters to sing or saving the songs for the credits. “You’ll Be In My Heart feels like it belongs in its scene, but the rest of the songs almost feel like fan edited music videos. It’s kind of distracting. The songs also sound the same after a while, making “You’ll Be In My Heart” the only memorable one after a while. There is one exception to this with “Trashin’ the Camp”, which is basically three minutes of Tarzan’s friends banging and breaking things at the human camp for a groovy number. That song’s just fun.
Most people know the general story of Tarzan, the human who grew up among the apes and falls in love with Jane when she travels to the jungle. This movie sticks pretty close to that story, but it does it very well. The action is very fast paced, which contrasts brilliantly with the scene where Tarzan and Jane first meet. The scene is very drawn out. Tarzan checks out this very strange being that kind of looks like him for several minutes. At first Jane is freaked out, but she starts to realize what’s going on and eases up. That’s one way this movie works very well. It knows when to speed through something, and when to slow down and let dramatic moments happen. Over the course of the movie Jane starts teaching Tarzan about the human world, and they start falling in love.
Both of the leads are great characters. Tarzan struggles throughout the movie with his sense of belonging. He knows he looks different from his ape family, and the leader of the pack doesn’t trust him. At the same time, his gorilla mother is very loving toward him. When Jane’s about to leave, he’s forced to choose between the gorilla family he grew up with and the human world that he wants to discover. Their goodbye is a heartbreaking moment. Jane too faces a similar dilemma. She’s naturally curious and maybe starts a bit clumsy, but when Tarzan starts teaching her about jungle life, she becomes a bit of a vine swinger herself and even helps out in the climax a bit. I won’t spoil the rest of the movie, but the ending is bittersweet and very effective.
Most of the supporting characters are good too. Tarzan’s mother is very supportive of him throughout the movie. Kerchak is the gorilla pack leader, who doesn’t seem to like Tarzan from the start. As the movie goes on he seems to soften up from time to time, but one of Tarzan’s goals throughout the movie is to earn his trust. Tarzan has a couple friends that act mostly as comic relief, but they do add an extra touch of drama when Tarzan considers leaving for England. There’s also the hunter Clayton who eventually turns out to be the movie’s villain. He’s a good foe for Tarzan, but I wouldn’t call him anything special. Really, the only supporting character I’m not all that fond of is Jane’s father. He’s portrayed as a bit eccentric and also acts as comic relief, but he sometimes distracts from otherwise dramatic moments. I don’t dislike him, but the movie would barely change if he was removed entirely.
So like all the other movies in the second half of the Disney Renaissance, Tarzan is by no means perfect. That said, it strikes an emotional chord that resembles a lot of the classic Disney movies that even the likes of Aladdin fell short on. There is a lot to like about Disney’s Tarzan. Your opinion may vary depending on whether you like Phil Collins’s music or not, but if you don’t mind him like me, it won’t hold back this movie too much. If you like his music, you may even like Tarzan more than I did. The second half of the Renaissance faltered a lot compared to the early 90’s, but it’s nice to know that it ended on a high note. I’m glad to know that the last animated Disney movie of the last millennium is a good one.
Next up is three movies that released in the year 2000, Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur and The Emperor’s New Groove. It’s the start of Disney’s second Dark Age. Unlike the first one, it’s not because their movie production slowed down. I’m not looking forward to this next decade of animated Disney movies, so I’ll probably slow down with the nest batch of movies for sanity’s sake.