Animated Movies, Disney, Reviews, Studios

Disney Canon Countdown 37: ‘Tarzan’

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In 1919, popular novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs moved his family from Oak Park, Illinois, to Southern California. Not long after his arrival, Burroughs bought a huge tract of land from Harrison Gray Otis, the founder of the Los Angeles Times, and established a ranch on the land. When it came time to name the property, Burroughs named it after his most popular character: Tarzan of the Apes. Eventually, Burroughs subdivided Tarzana Ranch and sold it to residential developers. The area grew more prosperous. In fact, Tarzana is still a famous part of Los Angeles.

Why did I tell you all this? Just to convey this fun fact: Tarzan is the only Disney character to have a neighborhood named after him. How cool is that?

Seriously, that fact is just one indicator of how iconic Tarzan is. He’s one of those characters everybody seems to know, and why not? Shipwrecked with his family… raised by apes… highly skilled at hand-to-hand-combat… the ruler of a monkey kingdom… there’s nobody else like the guy in all of pop culture!

Naturally, Tarzan’s colorful nature makes him a perfect fit for animation. Disney Animation recognized that so they gave the dude his own movie. That film is the 1999 masterwork Tarzan!

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Our story begins as a man and woman escape from a flaming ship. As the fiery hulk disappears into the sea, the couple make their way toward shore. The mother carries a small bundle in her arms; said bundle consists of their newborn son. The couple make it to the jungle shore and proceed to build their own Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. Unfortunately, not long after the construction, the house is invaded by Sabor, a bloodthirsty leopard, who kills the child’s parents. Fortunately, the child is found by Kala (Glenn Close), a gorilla who had just lost a child to Sabor. Kala takes the orphaned child in, naming him Tarzan. Most of the gorillas roll with the adoption, but Kerchak (Lance Henrikson), the leader of the ape tribe, is less sure about Tarzan.

Many years pass. Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) is now an adult, fluent in ape-speak and adept at tree-surfing. Things are going just the way they’ve always gone, until a group of humans arrive in the jungle. The landing party consists of Jane Porter (Minnie Driver) and Professor Archemedes J. Porter (Nigel Hawthorne), traveling on a scientific expedition to study gorillas. They’re accompanied by Clayton (Brian Blessed), a hunter with a smarmy, charming exterior and a black heart.

After rescuing Jane from a band of angry baboons, Tarzan becomes infatuated with her (and vice versa). Tarzan also becomes more and more interested in these “strangers like him”, and he only becomes more fascinated as his sharp mind absorbs more and more about the human world. Eventually, however, this new fascination brings him into conflict with the gorilla tribe and the only life he’s ever known. Tarzan finds himself torn between his feelings for Jane and his ties to the gorillas. On top of all that, he’s got Clayton to worry about!

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Tarzan is one of my favorite lead characters in any Disney film, and that’s due to the amount of care that went into shaping him. The story crew and animators did a really fine job depicting how the gorilla upbringing and the human instincts helped form Tarzan’s personality. Tarzan moves, sits, and uses his arms and feet just as gorillas do. Full credit to Glen Keane and his crew of animators for that! The story crew brings attention to Tarzan’s human side, showing how Tarzan immediately takes to inventing tools and how his sharp mind quickly learns different languages and human customs. The human and gorilla qualities blend together to make Tarzan a fascinating character, full of ideas, conflict, and interesting quirks!

In an interview with Morgan, Mason, and Chelsea, Don Bluth discussed the vital importance of color choice in animation. He discussed how different colors arouse different emotions. Therefore, he continued, if an animated scene is going to work at all, it needs to be colored perfectly. Fortunately, Tarzan is a textbook example of how to color a film well! Obviously, this is a jungle movie, so there’s going to be lots of green. However, the filmmakers also use other colors to underline feelings, like dark blue hues for emotional scenes (like when Tarzan learns about his human parents) and vivid reds for intense, scary scenes (as when Clayton and his crew invade the gorilla tribe).

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Speaking of Clayton, let me bring up one of my few complaints regarding the film. Clayton simply isn’t intimidating enough! Sure, we know he has corrupt motives for visiting the gorillas, but they don’t become clear until late in the film. During most of the movie, Clayton doesn’t do anything particularly villainous; instead, he spends most of his time firing his shotgun, moping around camp, and whining. If the story crew had just given Clayton a little more to do, he would have been a more effective nemesis.

Let me move to a more positive note: Phil Collins’s songs. Tarzan is different from the other Disney Renaissance films in that it’s not a traditional musical; Collins’s songs play over the action, rather than being sung by the characters. That’s not an issue, though, for Collins’s songs are exceptional! They do an excellent job tying the loose story threads together and commenting on the film’s themes. They’re also catchy and easy to sing! My personal favorite has to be “Strangers Like Me”, but all of Collins’s ditties are great!

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I admit that I haven’t read any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels, nor have I seen any of the many live-action Tarzan films. However, I can’t see any of the books or movies being better than Disney’s version. Tarzan is a wonderful mixture of warm comedy, exotic adventure, and fantastic Disney music. It’s truly one of the jewels in Disney’s crown!

What do you think of TarzanHow do you think it compares to the other Disney Renaissance films?

Edited by: Kelly Conley

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About AJ Howell

AJ's love of movies began when his mom took him to see The Lion King on a warm California day in 1994. He left the theater with his mind blown and with a strong desire to become a filmmaker. AJ's fascinated with films of all kinds, but animated films have always held a special place in his heart, particularly Disney animation, the work of Chuck Jones, and Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson's Peanuts specials. His favorite animated films include (but aren't limited to) Frozen, Beauty And The Beast, Surf's Up, The Bugs Bunny/RoadRunner Movie, and Toy Story 3. Along with films, AJ also loves pop and rock music, hiking, the beach, comic books, traveling, writing, acting, and baseball.