Page to Screen: Tarzan (1999)

based on Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I saw Tarzan once, perhaps in theaters—considering it came out when I was eight, I don’t particularly remember. I did see it, though, but ended up forgetting about it except as my personal definitive end-date for the Disney Renaissance that started with The Little Mermaid in 1989. But considering my love for Glen Keane’s work as an animator and the fact that I’ve recently grown interested in reading the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I thought it was time to revisit Disney’s take on Burroughs’ most famous character.

Tarzan opens with a shipwreck off the coast of Africa in the 1880s. A married couple and their infant son survive to make a new home in the jungle, only for the parents to die at the hands of Sabor, a vicious leopard. The baby is found by a gorilla named Kala, who names him Tarzan and raises him as her own. Not knowing his true heritage, Tarzan has a difficult time fitting in, but he continues to try to impress his adopted father, Kerchak. When Tarzan defeats Sabor, things are looking up—until humans arrive on their shores. While Dr. Porter and his daughter Jane are interested in studying the social habits of gorillas, their hired gun Clayton is more interested in capturing and selling gorillas. But Tarzan’s curiosity about his past gets the better of him, and the two worlds collide.

I have to admit, Tarzan has a breathtakingly powerful opening. I usually tend to watch movies in the basement with my laptop open to take notes; things have gotten worse since Iona the iPhone joined my family of electronics. But I closed everything and paid attention to the first five minutes. With remarkably brevity and subtle characterization, we immediately understand the relationships between Tarzan’s parents and his adopted parents, with no words at all. I was surprised to discover that Tarzan’s biological mother was originally written to die before her husband and son, and I’m quite glad that she dies alongside her husband defending her son instead. Kala discovering Tarzan and then rescuing him from Sabor was fantastic. And it’s all set to “Two Worlds, One Family”, which has surprisingly aged well. It’s well worth the price of admission.

And then the sidekicks starting talking. You see, Disney has an odd track record with sidekicks. Even in my favorite Disney film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, you have to do some mental gymnastics to make the gargoyles (whom I actually find funny) mesh with the rest of the work. Sometimes, especially when they’re not talking sidekicks, they work well; they provide enough comic relief while being characters with their own motivations, as in The Princess and the Frog. But Tarzan has the most useless sidekicks I’ve ever seen in a Disney film. They’re not terrible, but they’re useless. While we’re told that Tarzan, Terk, and Tantor are the best of friends, Terk and Tantor don’t have much interaction or friendly chemistry with Tarzan. They’re only there to rescue Tarzan at the end and give him an elephant to ride. They’re not hard to watch, but they’re just boring. After Tarzan’s fantastic battle with Sabor, we’re treated to Terk sassily making her way to her best friend and playfully chiding him, but the point of the scene is not to establish their relationship, but to show the lengths Tarzan will go to to impress Kerchak. In short, they’re useless and worse, they’re not even entertaining.

It’s a shame, really, because when the film isn’t doing whatever it thinks it’s accomplishing by time spent on Terk and Tantor (I think “Trashing the Camp” has just superseded “Be My Guest” as the most narratively useless Disney song ever), Tarzan is a film that takes its audience seriously. The violence of life in the jungle isn’t toned down, although it’s cleaned up a little—I was struck by just how many corpses are actually shown onscreen in this film. It uses the Tarzan story to explore themes about family and belonging… save that the latter also explores fame, it’s a bit like Hercules in that respect. Tarzan is a sympathetic character, an other among the gorillas and the humans who tries his hardest to do his best. And, of course, he’s animated beautifully by Glen Keane. There’s a moment where Jane sketches him briefly for her father and mentions his intense gaze, which definitely comes across visually. Practical Jane is attracted to Tarzan, not just to the man but also to what he represents; a way of humanity literally co-existing with nature, instead of studying it at a distance or trying to dominate it. Their relationship is quite sweet.

While I’m not a huge fan of Phil Collins, his work on this film is quite good, especially “Two Worlds, One Family”. However, it can sometime be a little too on the nose—while I love the “Strangers Like Me” montage where the Porters teach Tarzan English and about human cultures, the song itself can really only be applicable in this specific context. Still, it’s a much better change of pace in Disney composing than Randy Newman’s work on The Princess and the Frog, although Collins did get what amounts to an action film and Newman was shoehorned into a traditional princess picture. In fact, the action sequences in this film are thrillingly done; there’s real tension to them, especially since the jungle is established as treacherous ground even for people who know it well. Tarzan’s climactic fight with Clayton is of particular note, as Tarzan—whose English still needs work—rejects Clayton’s (and thus the human world’s) view of what a man of action should be. Jane randomly popping up in the aftermath made me giggle, but I was glad to see Tarzan dealing with issues like that despite supposedly being more for the kids. Now, if only Terk and Tantor were out of the picture…

Bottom line: Disney’s Tarzan uses the Tarzan story to explore themes of family and belonging, with a generous heaping of genuinely thrilling action sequences, good music, and organic character development… except for the utterly useless and unentertaining sidekicks. Worth a watch.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

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