This, as well as the next two weeks worth of Disney movies, will be first-time viewings for me which should spark interesting discussions in the comments. I avoided Tarzan when it came out initially, mainly because the Tarzan story didn’t appeal to me and because Disney had mined similar territory two years prior with George of the Jungle. Watching it now Tarzan has some worthy animation, and somewhat decent (although vastly underwritten) characters; the use of “Deep Canvas” animation is also unique to look at, although we lose a lot of the fine details Disney’s known for. What ends up bringing Tarzan down to a lower-tier Disney flick is the soundtrack. Although not nearly as devastating to the film as the use of Billy Joel in Oliver and Company, Tarzan has some jarring musical cues to introduce the Phil Collins soundtrack which starts to sound like one song on a loop by the end. Tarzan ends up being a soundtrack with a translucent plot spliced in.
Raised by apes in the jungle, Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn) struggles to assert himself despite the protestations of ape leader Kerchak (voiced by Lance Henriksen). When a bumbling scientist and his daughter, Jane (voiced by Minnie Driver) come upon Tarzan, the ape-man must come to understand his identity.
The Edgar Rice Burroughs story about a man growing up amongst apes has been adapted countless times. (It’s up there with Dracula as one of the most adapted sources). Counting on Burroughs turned out to be a blessing because this was the first Disney movie to go to number one since Pocahontas (we loved outdoor movies about prejudice in our 90s animation). The claim to fame with Tarzan was the revolutionary process of Deep Canvas wherein two-dimensional animation was integrated seamlessly into a three-dimensional background. For 1999 it was a way to separate itself from the dearth of animated films out there, and return Disney to being innovators of animation, but it creates a rather blah film to look at. The colors are suitably dark or light depending on the time day, and the characters are drawn well – especially Tarzan whose body could only be designed through animation – but the backgrounds feel muted and uninspired; there’s only so many ways you can draw foliage, but even when Tarzan looks back at the island from a boat, it’s a rather flat and typical representation of an island, lacking the punch of either 2D or 3D.
The characters are also fairly one-note, with no one character doing much to separate themselves from the herd. Tony Goldwyn’s Tarzan isn’t a big talker, so there’s nothing for him to provide in terms of vocal quality. Tarzan is animated with an interesting array of human and ape characteristics, but that’s all. By the same token, Jane, her father and game hunter, Clayton (voiced by Shakespearean legend Brian Blessed) are underdeveloped; Jane is the girl, her father the buffoon and Clayton the villain. I do admire Disney for not drawing Clayton from the same pool as Gaston, which I expected upon first seeing the character. Clayton and Gaston are complimentary to each other; both are tall, strapping men with congruent facial features and a one-track mind. However, Clayton doesn’t show any affection for Jane and treats her no different from her father. Blessed’s voice, and the character, hew closer to George Sanders voicing of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book. (There is a leopard that threatens the apes and Tarzan’s parents, who I assumed with a formidable foe, but he’s dispatched within the first thirty minutes.) It’s a shame that Blessed doesn’t get to go as wild as past villains. And while Minnie Driver is a cute Jane, she’s purely something for Tarzan to rescue and fall in love with! What, because the main character is a male that means we can’t have an equally engaging female? Driver is great with her vocal performance. Her ad-libbed description of Tarzan is filled with interjections including the capper “And Daddy! They took my boot!” I just wanted her to do something, anything other than cry, fall down, and swoon over Tarzan.
I will say the script curtails the use of cuddly side characters that was growing to critical mass in past efforts. Sure, Tarzan has two friends named Terk (voiced by Rosie O’Donnell) and Tantor (voiced by Wayne Knight) but that’s minor for a Disney movie. Unfortunately, Terk and Tantor are a discount Timon and Pumbaa, but with an enhanced annoyance factor. I’ve never understood why movies believe inserting a character with a thick New Jersey or Brooklyn accent equals instant humor. Terk is an anachronistic character who doesn’t fit in! One minute she’s trying to assert how Tarzan isn’t her best friend during a childhood sequence, and then she’s upset over his leaving her. Neither one of these side characters develops a lasting bond with Tarzan; they’re created to service the plot and show that he didn’t grow up entirely alone. Again, they’re Timon and Pumbaa without the big musical number.
And this leads us back around to the singing. Disney hoped to move away from the showtunes structure of their past movies, and while it’s good to try new things, the Phil Collins soundtrack plays like anything on radio today. There’s nothing particularly special about these songs other than their connection to the plot. They’re all catchy, but other than “You’ll Be in My Heart,” the songs are unidentifiable. They sound the same to the point of being on a loop. Due to the songs not being sung by the characters (actually, I think the “Trashing the Camp” sequence is the only one where characters could be singing) the musical cues appear confused. The first song slams into the first minutes of the movie, so instead of identifying and connecting with Tarzan’s parents plight you’re saying “Hey, is that Phil Collins?” The songs come from out of nowhere, and it’s not until the climax that the plot is allowed to rise above the stifling soundtrack.
Tarzan is far from a terrible Disney movie, it’s mediocre at best. The soundtrack is what’s meant to sell here, not the story. The characters underwritten with one collective trait, and while the side characters are managed better, they’re rip-offs of better written characters.
NEXT WEEK: We return to the world of Fantasia with Fantasia 2000.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.