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Disney 53: Tarzan

Tarzan

Directed by Chris Buck and Kevin Lima
1999/88 minutes

TARZAN was the final film of the so-called “Disney Renaissance”; after this, Disney movies suffered a slump in popularity. Some say quality, but that’s an unfair assessment.

In any case; based upon the novel Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (who also wrote the original John Carter stories), TARZAN was – at the time – the most expensive animated film ever made, until Disney’s own TREASURE PLANET three years later. From the outset, it was decided that animation was the perfect way to execute a Tarzan story because the character is so lithe and animal-like – it would have been nearly impossible to achieve those effects with live action. To create sweeping 3D backgrounds, a new 3D painting/rendering technique was developed, allowing the creation of CGI backgrounds that looked like a traditional painting, allowing the traditionally-animated characters to blend seamlessly into the environment. Dubbed “Deep Canvas”, the technique earned its creators an Academy Technical Achievement Award in 2003. Deep Canvas was later utilised for ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE and TREASURE PLANET.

Like many Disney adaptations, TARZAN takes a number of dramatic liberties with the source material, which we’ll come to later. Suffice it to say the original, episodic pulp novel is regarded by many to be totally unfilmable. In fact, there has never been a “faithful” adaptation of the original book, but for all its changes, Disney’s TARZAN is a bloody good film.

SYNOPSIS: Montage No. 1: Sometime in the late nineteenth century, and to the strains of Phil Collins, a young couple and their infant son escape a burning ship, finding themselves on the coast of Africa. From the salvaged wreckage of the ship, they build a home for themselves and forge a life for themselves and their son.

At about the same time, a gorilla couple, Kerchak and Kala (Lance Henriksen and Glenn Close) live happily within a large troop, travelling with their own infant son. Tragedy strikes both families in the form of Sabor, a vicious leopard. Sabor slaughters the Greystokes (never named on-screen) and Kala’s own child, leading her to adopt the Greystokes’ child as her own. Kerchack is reluctant, but allows it. Kala names the child Tarzan.

Fast-forward a few years and Tarzan has grown into a precocious, energetic youngster who wants nothing but to be accepted by the other young gorillas, notably Terk (Rosie O’Donnell), who comes to care for the “hairless wonder”. After a childish dare almost costs the life of another gorilla, and angry at his limitations, Tarzan has a (literal) heart-to-heart with his mother, and resolves to improve himself, and earn his place in the group.

Montage No. 2 sees Tarzan grow about a decade in the space of one (quite beautiful) Phil Collins song, developing tools and weapons for himself, and learning from the other animals that surround him, as he, Terk and the paranoid elephant Tantor (Wayne Knight) grow and mature.

When Sabor returns and attacks the group, Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) swings to Kerchak’s rescue, killing Sabor and earning his “father’s” respect. The moment is interrupted by the sound of a gunshot: the British have arrived! Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne, who voiced Fflewder Fflam in THE BLACK CAULDRON fifteen years earlier) and his brilliant daughter Jane (Minnie Driver) are searching the area for gorillas, guided by the bullish, trigger-happy Clayton (a brilliantly cast Brain Blessed).

Jane invokes the wrath of a family of baboons, and Tarzan saves her from being torn asunder; after a muddled introduction, Tarzan realises that he and Jane are the same, and helps her return to camp. Meanwhile, Terk and the other youngsters find the English camp unoccupied, and proceed to trash the place in the film’s one traditional musical sequence (apparently insisted on by Rosie O’Donnell); Tarzan’s arrival with Jane prompts them all to depart, taking Tarzan with them and leaving a startled, enamoured Jane. Kerchak orders that the group stay away from the strangers, but Tarzan protests. After another argument, Tarzan secretly returns to the campsite.

Montage No. 3: Professor Porter and Jane begin to teach Tarzan about the wider human world, while Clayton attempts to learn the location of the gorillas. Fearing Kerchak’s wrath, Tarzan refuses to take them, but when the boat arrives to take the expedition home, Clayton is able to manipulate Tarzan into helping them, for Jane’s sake.

With Terk and Tantor providing a distraction for Kerchak, Tarzan leads the group to the nesting site, where they meet Kala; the other gorillas venture from their cover, and begin investigating the humans with playful curiosity. Jane asks if Tarzan can teach her to speak gorilla, but is taken aback when he teaches her the ‘gorillese’ for “Jane stay with Tarzan”…
The meeting of the clans is interrupted by the return of Kerchak, who immediately attacks the humans. Tarzan is able to hold his father off and cover their escape, but is left confused and alienated by his family. Kala resolves to tell Tarzan the truth of his origins, and takes him back to the treehouse. Dressing in his father’s clothes, Tarzan resolves to leave with the humans, to be with his kind.

Tarzan leaves with Jane, but once on board, he’s ambushed by the crew and imprisoned in the hold on Clayton’s order; he’s taken over the ship and is leading a raid on the nesting grounds – “Three hundred pounds sterling a head” for each gorilla captured, and has Tarzan to thank for it.

On the shore, Terk and Tantor arrive too late to bid Tarzan farewell. Hearing Tarzan’s screams of frustration, Tantor suddenly grows a pair, and he and Terk swim out to the ship to rescue Tarzan.

Rallying other jungle animals to his aid, Tarzan and Jane lead the charge against Clayton and his crew; Tarzan is shot across the arm, but Kerchak is mortally wounded by Clayton. Tarzan and Clayton duel amongst the canopy, culminating in Clayton’s swift and grisly demise.

With the gorillas freed, Tarzan returns to Kerchak, who with his dying breath entreats his son to lead the group.

With the crew under arrest, Professor Porter and Jane prepare to leave. Tarzan bids them farewell, having chosen to remain with his family. As they’re row away from shore, Porter encourages Jane to be with the man she loves, and she jumps overboard to be with him. Porter promptly follows, joining his daughter and embarking on a new adventure together.

Tarzan and Jane

LESSONS LEARNED:

1. Love and family can transcend age, race and species.

2. The only limit to what you can do is yourself.

3. If you’re going to kill someone, watch where you’re standing. Not that we condone you trying to kill anyone.

 

THE HERO
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Perhaps the most noble and honourable Disney hero, Tarzan has no apparent weaknesses of character; his heart and will are as strong as his body, and his humility and naivety make him one of the most human of any Disney character. Whilst humble to his adoptive father Kerchak, he’s strong enough to stand up to him, quite literally, whilst his relationship with Kala is one of the most beautiful and heartfelt of any Disney film.
Animator Glen Keane was inspired by his son to give the lead an “extreme sports” makeover – the dreadlocked Tarzan was modelled in part after skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, while a professor of anatomy was hired to provide insight on Tarzan’s alpha-human physique.

As well as voicing Clayton, Brian Blessed lent his formidable larynx to Tarzan’s signature cry.

THE HEROINES
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Kala provides the emotional backbone of the film. Losing a child and then adopting the infant Tarzan, she becomes his confidant and his conscience while serving as the bridge between him and Kerchak. Very much in the mold of Sarabi and Perdita, Kala’s maternal love transcends species, and it’s obvious that without her, Tarzan would never have survived.

Coming into the story at the second act, Jane Porter is an intelligent, articulate and talkative young woman who seems to attract trouble like a moth to a flame. In contrast to Tarzan becoming more “human” as the film progresses, as time passes, Jane seems to regress somewhat, discarding the peplum and petticoats for a much more naturalistic, looser-fitting garb. Despite this, she retains her sense of English pride (which is ironic, considering she’s American in the book) throughout, remaining an English rose amidst the jungle flora. She’s also darned hot, in my humble opinion.

THE VILLAINS
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Clayton stands as one of the great Disney villains, possessing not only great strength and intellect, but also a well-rounded characterisation. While Shan Yu was shown as little more than a barbarian, Clayton shares some DNA with Frollo and Ratcliffe, believing themselves to be good men and “better” than those he finds himself drawn against. He’s as keen a hunter as Gaston, but doesn’t seem to share his attitude towards women – he shows Jane a lot more respect than Gaston paid Belle. He’s a perfect counter for Tarzan; an intelligent brute who sinks further into animal savagery whilst maintaining his civil superiority.

HIS FATE: Snared in a web of vines, Clayton wildly slashes at them with his machete. Tarzan looks on and tries to warn him, as a vine catches around Clayton’s throat. The vines give way beneath him, and he plummets to earth. A flash of lightning shows his body, hanging in silhouette.

Sabor, on the other hand, is perhaps the most successful and deadliest of Disney villains, easily killing three minor characters and injuring the leads. Despite this, not much is known about her; when she attacks the adult Tarzan, it’s unclear whether she shares Shere Khan’s vendetta against humanity, recognises him as the child she encountered years before, or if she perceived him to be the weakest of the group (seeing as he was with Terk and Tantor, a logical if mistaken assumption.)

HER FATE: Having dealt a number of serious blows to Kerchak, Sabor is slain by Tarzan, impaled upon his makeshift spear.

SIDEKICKS AND HENCHMEN
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Terk and Tantor follow a long tradition of comedy duos on both sides of the heroic divide, but manage to give a new depth to a tired cliché. Tantor is a relatively standard gentle giant type, besotted with nerves and ungrounded fears, but when it’s required of him, he shows some real mettle. Terk, on the other hand, is dealt a slightly different hand.  While she’s as talkative and casually domineering as Timon and shares many of Dodger’s personality traits, it’s her understated relationship with Tarzan (and unrequited romance?) that adds a little extra dimension.

INTERESTING INTERLUDE: The reason why Terk is a girl in the movie? According to producer Bonnie Arnold, when male actors auditioned for the part, none of them clicked. When O’Donnell came to audition, it worked and she got the part; “You don’t have to be a guy to be a best friend.”

Professor Archimedes Q. Porter is a rather standard eccentric father-figure, academically brilliant if socially inept. He has moments of brilliance but is generally a foil for Clayton and an occasional source of exposition, while Clayton’s henchmen are much like Hook’s; anonymous, undefined, unshaven louts.

SONGS AND SCORE
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The score by Mark Mancina is beautiful and appropriate, but it’s Phil Collins’ soundtrack that brings the film to life. Seeking to get away from the Broadway-esque “showtune” structure, Collins provides a song for every major turning point of the film, soundtracking each montage with a beautifully crafted song which enhances the storytelling rather than interrupting it. You could argue that Collins provides a kind of musical narration for the film; he provides a voice for unspoken thoughts and feelings for both Tarzan and Kala while helping to hold the film together as it jumps forwards in time, whether by a few weeks or an entire decade.

All of Collins’ songs deserve praise but, for me, Son of Man is the highlight; upbeat and hopeful, it’s a life-affirming ballad that swells in the heart without being overly preachy or “cute”.

PLOT
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Completely ignoring most of Edgar Rice Burrough’s original story, Disney’s TARZAN keeps to the spirit of the character while writing its own legend. The basic story is Disney to its core – a young outcast finding his way in the world with the help of a beautiful woman and some craaayy-zee sidekicks – but that allows us to just enjoy the ride.

LAUGHS
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A lot of ‘em, ranging from verbal sparring to good old slapstick, with surprisingly few moments of culture-clash humour; Tarzan’s initial misunderstanding of Clayton raises a chuckle but it’s soon dropped to maintain the narrative drive. As you’d expect, most of the real humour comes from Terk and Tantor, but given that they’re both voiced by veteran comic actors, and are left mostly on the sidelines, they don’t outstay their welcome.

SCARES
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TARZAN is one of the most emotionally thrilling Disney films out there, and not just for all the physical action – the vine swinging, the tree-surfing and whatnot. The fight scenes are surprisingly brutal and visceral for a Disney film, while the final confrontation with Clayton ranks as one of my top five Disney climaxes. But it’s also the emotional rollercoaster, Tarzan’s conflict between the two sides of himself that bring heft to an already charged film.
The real scares come courtesy of Sabor; she may be the secondary antagonist but she’s certainly the scarier of the two. Wisely, she’s not given any dialogue, bar Frank Welker’s vocalisations; instead she’s a wordless assassin and a lethal combatant.

MORAL/ EDUCATIONAL VALUE
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Pretty standard fare, really; acceptance of one’s differences, anti-xenophobia slant, female characters shown on equal footing, for the most part. You may pick up a couple of things about gorilla society – the creation of nests, travelling in family groups etc., but TARZAN doesn’t set out to educate, rather entertain.

LEGACY
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TARZAN performed well at the box-office and with the critics, winning a number of awards for its soundtrack and animation techniques, and nominated for about a dozen more. A stage musical version opened on Broadway in May 2006 and has travelled the world since then; it makes a few changes to the story and characters – dropping Tantor and making Terk male, and boasts nine new songs written by Phil Collins.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN ran for 39 episodes and serves as a direct continuation, with Tarzan taking on his role as Kerchak’s successor and Jane learning the ways of the jungle. It introduces a few characters from the original Rice Burroughs stories and expanded the world, even throwing in an appearance from (then) former President Theodore Roosevelt, who really did visit Africa in 1909… about a decade after the original film is apparently set (about 1890-95).

TARZAN II: THE LEGEND BEGINS was released on video in 2005 and basically takes place during the “Son of Man” sequence, as young Tarzan’s attempts to better himself cause havoc amongst the gorillas before he comes to realise who and what he is meant to be. Bleh. It was nominated for a couple of awards, and won a couple more, but critics were lukewarm in their response.

KINGDOM HEARTS featured “Deep Jungle” as a playable world, teaming the hero Sora with Tarzan; it only appears in the first game and subsequent FINAL MIX, due to Square Enix’s failure to acquire the rights from the Burroughs estate.

FINAL SCORE: 43
NEXT TIME: FANTASIA 2000

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