Disney’s “Tarzan” (1999) Review

Image: Disney, Wikipedia.org

Everyone’s doing the Tarzan Yell these days!

PLOT –

Adopted by his ape family in the jungle, the human Tarzan must prove himself worthy of them, but when human explorers arrive, Tarzan discovers his own kind, and lives through two worlds.

This film’s plot is a course-correction of films before. It’s similar to Hercules and Mulan, yet we see more of Tarzan’s struggles with fitting in, and this consistent narrative is shown between all three phases of his life (child, young boy, and adult). The acceptance of Tarzan as one of the apes is gradual, and throughout his life, Tarzan tries as hard as he can to be one of them. When the humans enter, it’s evident that Tarzan is one of them, and while we don’t get a “YOU LIED TO ME” sequence, we get more understanding from him, yet also this is when he breaks away from the apes and becomes more human. It works really well here, defying usual story convention and acting more like a young man moving away from home, which is a great parallel. The conflict also shifts throughout, going from the animal villain to the adopted father, and finally to the human villain, letting each act of the film have its own antagonist, yet it doesn’t overstuff the film.

The film also has great pacing and tone, giving off a sense of darkness with hope hidden inside, mostly provided by the wistful, calming music of Phil Collins. His music anchors the film, and instead of being completely black at points, his music is a driving force, allowing for some light to shine through the first few minutes of the film, arguably Disney’s darkest opening. Most of the film centers on Tarzan as an adult, though the context provided by his infant and young selves is much needed and worth watching, an antithesis to Hercules’ younger selves; Tarzan grows up quicker yet his motivations stay the same instead of changing almost constantly. There aren’t really any weak plot points of the film, the pacing and tone is consistent, and the story dispenses with some general plot conventions, going in directions that Disney usually doesn’t traverse.

My PLOT RATING is 10 / 10.

CHARACTERS –

Tarzan (Alex D. Lintz, Tony Goldwyn) is the culmination of the Disney Renaissance Protagonist. He has to prove himself worthy to be accepted (Aladdin, Hercules) and is ostracized by his peers (Belle) because he’s different from them (Quasimodo, the Beast), is torn between two worlds (Ariel), and overcomes these deficiencies through hard work, brains, and heart (literally all of them).

This isn’t to say that Tarzan is a bland character. What’s interesting about him, is that, while he follows the path set by the rest, we hear his inner monologue suggested through song. We know more about him and empathize more because we hear not just what he says, but what he thinks and feels. We usually hear characters talk to themselves in private or under their breaths, but here it’s a whole new direction. His mind is insanely quick, as judged by the expert ‘vine-surfing’ and playful nature, using it to outwit his enemies at points, and brush off others’ offenses with a smile. He’s soft-spoken: his actions speak louder than his words, and this silent protagonist has true instinct and a truer heart. Simply put, we feel his feelings more than the other protagonists.

Kala (Glenn Close) is a great Disney Mother, one of the few surviving in the Canon. The dynamic between her and Tarzan is beautiful. Not since Dumbo have we had a good Disney Mom, and arguably Kala is one of the best. She truly cares about his struggles, and takes the time to explain to him her reasoning. Later in the film, she takes a backseat to the humans, and while regarding Kerchak’s violent discipline, she says less and less as the film goes on, realizing that some people just do not change. She lives her life somewhat away from her mate, yet stays connected to Tarzan, helping him throughout the film as needed, and showing love and caring all the way through.

Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), on the other hand, is stern, violent, and bitter, for reasons unknown. He butts heads with those that disagree with him, and attacks those who make him feel threatened. He doesn’t seem to do anything out of his own love, rather that his life is an obligation rather than a joy. He is a protector and a leader until his end, saving Tarzan twice, and leading the apes away from a stampede, saving an infant in the process. His character is somewhat hollow though, never scratching deeper than the angry father figure he was at the beginning, and his final scene lacks weight.

Terk (Rosie O’Donnell) and Tantor (Taylor Dempsey, Wayne Knight) are the comedic relief of the film. Rosie O’Donnell breaks the mold here, and does a great job of being ‘one of the guys’ (Terk was originally male), even getting a song in the process. She doesn’t get jealous or angry at Tarzan for leaving the apes, but instead has an understanding with him and remains his friend. She, like her title of ‘supporting character’ describes, truly supports the main and title character. Tantor is the stereotypical hypochondriac, leading to several fun scenes, and even rallying the troops at the end, leading the effort to save a trapped Tarzan. Both of them are great characters, and the next step in evolution of the ‘wacky sidekick’ characters, giving them more heart and character instead of more gags.

Jane (Minnie Driver) is a great female lead. She’s adventurous, yet timid, strong-willed, yet sweet, reserved, yet completely passionate and throws herself 100% into any situation. She’s a free spirit, and not stifled by other characters in the film, particularly male characters like her father, Clayton, or Tarzan. She is a comedic female character also, a two-fer here with Terk, and her relationship and later romance with Tarzan is one of the more believable ones in the Renaissance. You can understand their feelings and thoughts towards the other, all without words, and their passions for the others’ culture fits like a glove.

Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne) is the amalgamation of the Disney Renaissance Fathers, especially in looks (it’s the mustache and eyebrow combo). He’s bumbling and goes with the flow of the situation, rather than arguing with anyone, letting nature guide him along the way. The film doesn’t really address this, rather conveying this zen trait through his actions. He also implicitly trusts his daughter going out into the jungle, realizing that she belongs in this environment, and doesn’t question her safety, instead trusting Tarzan as well. This is powerful, having two parental characters (Kala and the Professor) trust their children to do the right things in life in a Disney film, no less.

Clayton (Brian Blessed), while not the best Disney Villain, works really well for this film. His voice actor, Brian Blessed, is mostly used for loud, larger-than-life roles, but here, he’s more subdued, which works, and is appreciated. In the story, he’s hired for his strength and marksmanship, yet shows an emotional manipulation that is subtle throughout the film. While he has some hallmarks of a classical villain such as Snidely Whiplash (it’s the mustache again), his villainous traits are not truly realized until the last act of the film. He is all class and pomp until then, losing composure and having a most gruesome death in his final five minutes of screen-time.

My CHARACTERS RATING is 9 / 10.

DIALOGUE –

The dialogue here is wonderful. For the first eight minutes, not a word is spoken by a character, instead letting the soundtrack do the talking. The original non-diagetic (not sung by a character) songs here are an extension and supplement to the dialogue, and this is a unique choice for Disney. The dialogue proper is also great. The characters have clear personalities and voices, and several jokes brighten up the dark plot points, but the film also shines when there is silence, especially during quiet or action scenes.

My DIALOGUE RATING is 10 / 10.

EFFECTS –

Deep Canvas. That is all.

The backgrounds and colors in this film are phenomenal, bringing brightness and depth to the Canon like never before. The vine-swinging and tree-surfing provide some of the best animation Disney has to offer, and the action sequences are kinetic and frenzied, yet clear enough to see what is going on. The amount of objects onscreen has also increased, boasting tens to hundreds of parrots and butterflies moving at once.

The Deep Canvas though, is the best thing here, allowing Two-Dimensional characters to interact with a Three-Dimensional space in ways that have never been done before, and it’s perfect here.

My EFFECTS RATING is 10 / 10.

MUSIC –

The score has a tribal, jungle-feel to it, but when combined with the orchestral tones and softer sounds, it’s magical. The score here brings out the emotions of the film, whether it be a scene of familial love, or a scene of tense action. The score also has notes and pieces of the lyrical songs within it, and these lyrical songs themselves blend excellently with the animation and story beats. Many feel like Phil Collins was a poor choice for the film’s music, and Collins weaves the music with the animation expertly. I could see no other musician write for this film.

“Two Worlds” – A wonderful opening song that gives hope to this dark opening. Lays out the film’s message of acceptance, love, and trust.

“You’ll Be In My Heart” – A beautiful song about love that we haven’t seen the likes of since “Baby Mine” from Dumbo. While not a romantic song, an excellent love song nonetheless, starting with Close and ending with Collins.

“Son Of Man” – The ‘growing up’ montage done right. Triumphant and powerful, this song is great, having some of the best animation in the Canon near the end.

“Trashin’ the Camp” – A song done completely in scat, this ear-worm won’t leave any time soon. The jazzy beat and sounds of the trumpeting gramaphone in the film are clever, and the everyday items

“Strangers Like Me” – One of the best songs in the Canon. A song of self-discovery, romance, and learning a different culture. Also very catchy and worth listening to over and over.

My MUSIC RATING is 10 / 10.

OVERALL –

Tarzan is excellent. The story is a beautiful tale of acceptance and love, the music seamlessly goes with the story and animation, the effects are jaw-dropping and unprecedented for Disney, even now, and while there are some weak characters here, the rest of the cast is excellent. Each element of this film supports the others, and they all weave a beautiful film tapestry. While underrated somewhat, and divisive in others, Tarzan is a masterpiece and teaches great lessons to those who see them.

Tarzan is a truly phenomenal film that pushes the boundaries of storytelling, animation, and music.

Image: Disney, Charactercentral.com

My OVERALL RATING for Disney’s Tarzan is 98%.

Next time…

FANTASIA! IN THE NEW MILLENIUM!!!

Stay tuned!

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