Posted January 10, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives

Disney: Tarzan

Encouraged by the success of their legendary classic Hercules, Disney set their sights on the jungle in their marvellous retelling of the renowned story, Tarzan and Jane. Ever keen to go out with a bang, Tarzan came as Disney’s last big hit of the ‘90s and would remain their most expensive animation to date (until the release of Tangled later this month, that is). Tarzan is slick, agile and focused…. and the man himself ain’t half bad either. Har har har.

The story is given a sorely needed new lease of life after previously stuffy, not exactly fun re-tellings had left it moribund and struggling to uphold its legendary status. This is almost entirely responsible to the larger than life characters (voiced by larger than life people in the case of Clayton…). Tarzan, far from being a scientific/anthropological phenomenon, is a real life, flesh and blood human being with very coherent feelings even when he is unintelligible. Jane and her father are living examples of the phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’, taking every risk in leaving their comfortable upper class London lives and delving into the African Congo to study behaviour patterns in gorillas. Jane is far from a damsel in distress, despite the fact that she is quite literally a thousand miles out of her comfort zone. Everything is an opportunity for her, and her stiff-upper-lipped British attitude means she daren’t lose her cool, even when she finds herself flying through the jungle being held up by a strange ape-man whilst being chased by a pack of ravenous, disgruntled baboons. Her openness to opportunity means that she instantly takes to the spontaneous, fun-loving Tarzan and sparks fly from the moment they first look each other in the eye.

The baddie of the tale is the hunter-guide Clayton voiced by the one and only Brian Blessed. Well, his voice alone should be enough of an indicator to his brash, inyerface and sometimes offensive personality, but this is made infinitely worse by his money grabbing attitude. He would rather see 50 dead gorillas for the sake of one caged one on the boat back to England than spend time gaining their trust and studying them in their natural habitats. Tarzan’s innate innocence constantly thwarts Clayton’s attempts to turn the Porters towards the green stuff (and I’m not talking about leaves) and a particularly telling sign of their mutual disliking for one another comes when Tarzan’s first word of English is the word ‘Clayton’, which he believes refers to the sound of a gun-shot. 

Perhaps unexpectedly, Tarzan is the runt of the litter until he puts some Rocky-style effort into buffing himself up to the physically grand level of a natural born ape. Perhaps he should have just gone to an Everton match, but I guess he wasn’t to know. His desire to assimilate is different from the morals of earlier Disney films, which promote ‘being yourself’ even when you stick out like a sore thumb. But Tarzan is practical: he must gain the skills necessary to protect his adopted mother, the kindly oh-so-huggable Kala and earn the respect and acceptance of Kerchack, the traditionalist leader of the group who seems to be constantly on the lookout for wrongdoing at his adopted son’s hand.

If you wanted to, you could reduce Tarzan to about fifteen minutes through picking out the few absolutely stunningly animated sequences which mark out important milestones in Tarzan’s life. The first of these sees youngster-Tarzan trying to pluck a hair from an elephant’s tail to prove his worth for his ‘friends’, who can think of nothing more hilarious than watching him get stampeded by ten wallowing elephants. The scene flits over and under water and the movement is so fast it’s a case of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ more than long, drawn out drama and tension. At this time, CGI was becoming almost commonplace and the increased strength of animation technology shines through in this scene through the crisp, clearly defined blocks of colour whizzing and leaping and generally being incredibly impressive. Although the real show-off moments of CGI have to be Tarzan’s tree-surfing. He glides along the branches completely effortlessly, and the background zooms past him with such lifelike conviction that it could be filmed.

These milestone moments are marked, as expected, with music, although none of the characters actually does any singing during the film which is somewhat unexpected. The score is one of Disney’s most famous as it was written and performed by the 80s pop sensation Phil Collins. Now, whatever you may think of Collins’ pop hits, it is impossible to deny his on the money song writing (and I don’t use that phrase glibly) with Tarzan. The Oscar went to him for ‘You’ll be in my Heart’, a love song about integrity and crossing social or species boundaries. It’s a tender moment when Kala hugs Tarzan for the first time and the Yamaha keyboard strikes up in the background… classic Collins. But the song which expresses the overall sentiment of the film is ‘Two Worlds’, which pretty much says the same thing as ‘You’ll be in my Heart’ but without the lovey-dovey stuff. Even though there is a strong love story running throughout the film, it is really about friendship and looking to the inside of a person to find what really counts, and that is what ‘Two Worlds’ is essentially about.

Tarzan is a Disney film without being a ‘Disney Film’. It is edgy and harsh in places, and supremely sentimental and lovable in others but always managing to contain a deep moral message without thrusting it down your gullet as is sometimes the case with Disney. It is an organic film in every sense of the word, from the effortless characterization to the perfectly animated jungle and even though it is not strictly realistic there are no aspects of the film which feel forced or unnatural. Fingers crossed for a worthy blu-ray release; in high-def, Tarzan can rival ‘Michael Palin Visits the Congo’ any day!

Dani Singer