"I was saved! I was saved by a flying wild man in a loincloth."

Released ten years after The Little Mermaid, Tarzan marked the unofficial end of the Disney renaissance. At least we can say it ended on a high.

Tarzan was last serious hit for Walt Disney Animation Studios (both financially and critically) before it fell into decline during the '00s. It grossed nearly $450 million at the global box office, the strongest performance of a Disney film since The Lion King. Disney wouldn't enjoy that sort of success again until John Lasseter took over as chief creative officer in 2006. With Lasseter in charge Disney stopped producing forgettable films like Brother Bear, Home on the Range, Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, and started producing films like Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph and a little film you're probably sick of hearing about called Frozen.

Of the 200 films based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' jungle hero, this is probably the best. Although a lot of changes have been made (for instance Tarzan is adopted by gorillas instead of chimpanzees), the film is a fairly faithful adaptation of the very first Tarzan book, Tarzan of the Apes, and still follows the basic structure of that book. The first half deals with Tarzan's youth as he struggles to find his place amongst his new family. The second half shows his encounter with other humans for the first time, specifically Jane Porter (who practically steals the film thanks to some great voice work by Minnie Driver).

Animation is the ideal medium for a character like Tarzan. What can look silly in live action (Tarzan swinging through the jungle on vines) can look stunning in animation. Rather than just swinging from vine to vine, this movie's Tarzan zips through the jungle like a hyper-active Spider-Man who doesn't just swing on vines but surfs along tree branches as well (his feet must be full of splinters). To create this the animation team developed a new painting and rendering technique known as Deep Canvas, to create sweeping 3D backgrounds that looked like traditional paintings.

Tarzan was the first film produced by Disney since The Rescuers Down Under that wasn’t a full blown musical. Only two songs ("Trashin' the Camp" and "You'll Be in My Heart") are sung by characters in the film. The rest are background music performed by Phil Collins (who also wrote all the songs). Because I have two ears and a heart, I’m quite fond of the songs, with the exception of the Oscar winning "You'll Be in My Heart" (“Blame Canada” was robbed). Disney wouldn’t release another musical again until The Princess and the Frog in 2009. In retrospect, this was monumentally dumb decision. I can understand the reasons for moving away from musicals and trying new things, but abandoning them altogether was a huge mistake. You just need to look at the massive success of Tangled and Frozen to see that.

Tarzan is sort of unique amongst Disney films in that it has two antagonists. The villain of the first half is Sabor, a ferocious leopardess responsible for the death of Tarzan's parents as well as Karla and Kerchak's child. Unlike the other animal characters in the film, Sobar doesn't speak or even have a personality, she is simply a brutal killing machine and the fight between her and Tarzan is the action highlight of the film. The villain for the rest of the film is Clayton, a English big game hunter voiced by BRIAN BLESSED!!! Like recent Disney villains, he doesn't sing and isn't all that funny or scary, but he's voiced by BRIAN BLESSED!!! and that is easily worthy of a gold star in my book.

Vines and Loincloths

--The film inspired a spin-off television series, The Legend of Tarzan, and two straight-to-DVD films Tarzan 2 (which is set during the character's youth) and Tarzan & Jane (which was just three TV episodes edited together).

--Tarzan's distinctive yell was apparently provided by BRIAN BLESSED!!!

--In the book, Tarzan's mother dies of natural causes and his father is actually killed by Kerchak.

--Tarzan's real name in the books is John Clayton, Lord of Greystoke. Although the film never reveals his full name, Clayton is likely based on William Cecil Clayton, Tarzan's cousin who becomes engaged to Jane.

--The film also changes Jane's nationality. She is American in the novels.

Kerchak: "I said he could stay. That doesn't make him my son."

Tarzan: "How'd you know it was me?"
Kala: "I'm your mother. I know everything. Now, where have you been?"
Tarzan: "I thought you knew everything."

Professor Porter: "Oh, Janie Jane! What an amazing discovery! A man with no language, no human behaviour..."
Jane: "And no respect for personal boundaries."

Jane: "Put me down! Put me down! (see the baboons approaching) No, pick me up, pick me up, pick me up!"

Three out of four underrated Phil Collins' songs.


sunbunny said...

I acknowledge and appreciate your 30 Rock reference. Not a huge fan of this one. I feel like the backgrounds don't integrate well with the traditionally animated characters (particularly when they're at sea…that water looks so weird to me). I also I can't shake the feeling that the movie is a vehicle for the admittedly great soundtrack.

Anonymous said...

Minnie Driver, not Mimi.

Morgan India said...


I've only seen this movie once but I bawled like a baby, despite being ... 19 at the time?

Also, Mark, are you sure you have two ears and a heart?

Billie Doux said...

I didn't know that this movie was that close to the original book. For me, the best adaptation so far was Greystoke, even though it kind of went afield in the second half of the movie.

Mark Greig said...

My bad, anon.