Disney Canon: Tarzan (1999)

Tarzan

Tarzan is widely and popularly considered the last movie of the Disney Renaissance. I actually don’t fully agree with this belief, but I will get more deeply into that argument next week. Right now, let me tell you that it is very easy to see why Tarzan has earned this reputation. For starters, it was a creative and financial success (the biggest hit for the studio since The Lion King) that came right before the decline of the Walt Disney Animation Studio became much more apparent and alarming. Tarzan is also a transitional and revolutionary movie, even if it doesn’t really feel like one. I first saw it when I was about seven years old, and I had absolutely no idea that I would look at it years later and see somewhat of a missing link in animation that is as influenced by what came before it, as it would influence what was to come after. Tarzan is the last movie that has the spirit of the Disney Renaissance while being a beast all its own.

Tarzan featured revolutionary elements to the history of animation in two fronts. On the technological side, it was the first movie to feature a new development called “Deep Canvas Technology”. This was probably the most significant development for the evolution of 2D animated movies since the introduction of CAPS (which I wrote about in the post on The Rescuers Down Under). Deep Canvas not only creates 3D environments that allow for what I will refer as “camera movement” for the lack of a better word, but it also allows the animators to design and color these images as if they were hand-painted. The results are 3D environments that actually look like the hand-painted backgrounds of a 2D animated movie unlike the flat and clashing creations of CAPS. The technology is a little hard to describe, so here’s a video that will give you an idea of what I’m talking about…

Now, if you’ve seen Tarzan, you will know that the Deep Canvas looks great. A fact all the more impressive when you consider that this was the first time that this technology was ever used. That the animators managed to do shots as beautiful and precise as those in which Tarzan slides around the tree branches as the one above using what was at that point completely unfamiliar technology is one of the biggest feats of animation I can think about. There is no denying Tarzans beauty, and this was only the beginning of Deep Canvas. Or so it seemed. As I’m sure you’re aware, 2D animation would only grow smaller in popularity, to the point where Disney stopped producing hand-drawn animation all together. This is one of the most shameful and tragic developments animation (and cinema as a whole) experienced in the last decade, although it seems like things might start to look up after the success of the 2D-3D hybrid short Paperman and the rumors that their upcoming movie Moana will use a similar style of animation.

However, this is not the moment or place to talk about the future of traditional animation, although it is a good way to segue into the other “revolutionary” aspect about Tarzan. I put quotation marks around the word because this is not as revolutionary an aspect as it is a reactionary one. Perhaps the most important development to the animation landscape in the 1990s, even more than Disney’s newfound glory, was the unprecedented success experienced by a company named Pixar. In 1995, Toy Story, the first 100% 3D animated movie, not only outgrossed Disney’s Pocahontasbut became the highest grossing movie of the year period. Because of the slow pace of production for animated films, Tarzan started production right after the gigantic success of The Lion King and Toy Story, and it feels very much like a hunt to capture what made those two movies so huge.

It seem like the lesson Disney took from that pair of movies is that what made them successful was that they were both “boy” movies. This signals a very significant, and quite frankly deadly, shift in Disney’s focus. This is when the movie started to try and go after the “teen boy” demographic that movie studios have come to believe is the only one that can turn a movie into a success. That’s why we have a male protagonist, a lot of action sequences, and those moments I mentioned in which Tarzan slides on tree branches that, not for nothing, look rather similar to skateboarding. Even more significantly, though, Tarzan is the first movie in almost a decade to break with the musical structure that had brought Disney back to the top. If characters sing in Tarzan, and they do very few times, it comes in natural moments in which it would be logical for them to do so. They never suddenly break into song to belt out their feelings.

Most of the songs, and this another lesson lifted from The Lion King, are sung off-screen by Phil Collins (who was also responsible of writing them). Now, I know that it is highly uncool to like Phil Collins, and it’s true that the lyrics to the songs in this movie are mostly very sappy, but the man knows how to create a good melody. Maybe it’s the fact that I kind of grew up watching the movie, but even if I prefer the more traditional musical approach in Disney movies, I think Collins’ songs are, for the most part, very effective. If you think I’m crazy for saying this, then you must re-watch the opening moments of Tarzan, set to the song “Two Worlds”, which yes, has corny lyrics, but scores what ends up being a highly effective silent prologue.

That musical sequence leads to gorilla Kala (Glenn Close) to meet baby Tarzan and become his adoptive mother after an attack by evil leopard Sabor, which is rather fantastic and probably the best and most inventive amongst the film’s numerous action sequences.

Even if there are formal differences, this sets up a very Disney-like story. Tarzan grows up amongst apes feeling like an outcast to later find out that there are other creatures like him and fall in love with one of them. Tarzan deals mainly with themes of family and belonging, which are peculiarly scarce in Disney movies. The Jungle Book is the one movie that I can think has similar themes, and its message seems to be a very traditional one of “to each his own”. Tarzan goes beyond, and becomes the first Disney movie to deal seriously and complexly with the concept of adoption. Rather surprising for a company so fond of orphan protagonists, isn’t it?

I’ll go back to the movie’s treatment of these themes in a second. First, I want to talk a little bit about the aspects that don’t work so well. The big one, at least for me, is the humor. Although I have to say humor with an asterisk, because some of the humor in the movie works really well (more about it later). Here I’m referring to the supporting comic-relief characters, more specifically gorilla Terk (Rosie O’Donell) and elephant Tantor (Wayne Knight), which work much better in their poignant emotional moments towards the end of the movie than in what are supposed to be their funny scenes. Another weak spot is in the villain front. Gorilla Kerchak is the most menacing personality, although he is a distant father figure and not much of a villain. The real baddies are Sabor, who doesn’t have a personality and is dispatched midway through the movie, and Clayton, the evil english hunter, who ends up being the big antagonist, but is not that memorable or menacing for most of the movie. He is more despicable and unlikable than he is evil and fearful.

With those quibbles out of the way, I have to say that the rest of Tarzan works very well. Tarzan himself, like most of Disney’s male heroes, doesn’t feature much personality, but the fact that he is an ape-man lets him move in a way that goes a long way to make him more relatable and interesting. It also helps that he falls in love with one of the best Disney characters of the era. Jane, as voiced by Minnie Driver, is a wonder of characterization and comedic timing. She is a victorian delight that sells the whole romantic angle. Also like The Lion King, some of Tarzan’s most powerful moments come from its visuals, particularly Tarzan putting his hand against his mother’s and later Jane’s, which pays off big time in the movie’s emotional climax. 

It is rather beautiful and satisfying that the romantic relationship in Tarzan ends up feeding its central theme so perfectly. The story of Tarzan and Jane is as much about creating and working towards building a family than the story about Tarzan being part of the Gorilla community. It also echoes charmingly with the opening moments in which Tarzan’s biological parents come out of a shipwreck to build their new home in the African shore. Tarzan is a lovely movie, and by all counts the last exhibit of the kind of storytelling that made Disney’s work so successful and powerful throughout the nineties.

Next Week: Fantasia 2000

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