Monday, March 4, 2013

1999 - Tarzan

As I’ve mentioned before, Tarzan is often considered the last film of the Disney Renaissance, and there’s a case to be made for that, I suppose. The next film, the long-desired Fantasia sequel, is definitely a much bigger style shift than this was, and the movies that follow it certainly have a distinctive tone and style to them. So I can see how at the time this was seen as part of the still nebulously-defined Renaissance. But looking at the films all together, I definitely think this is the start of the new era. There’s a lot changed in this one, and they were taking a pretty big risk making another dark and serious movie when they had enough time to prepare and could have played it safe. Would their fortunes turn around? Would the new era bring cinematic achievements or miserable failures? Why does Tarzan wear a loincloth if everyone else is naked? Going ape? So am I. So use a stick as a rudimentary tool to dig termites out of a mound, and let’s talk about Tarzan.

 Let’s get the money out of the way first. Mulan made about 300 million, which while a far cry from the glory days, was a significant bump up from Hercules. Tarzan made 450 million, approaching Beauty and the Beast levels for the first time in a while. (Side note: I’ve been meaning to mention, I’m working with worldwide box office gross to present on these, as that’s what’s easy to find. If you want more in-depth analysis, then give me some money.) A major reason for that was that it was just plain very good, but of course, the easy recognition of the Tarzan brand must have helped, too, coupled with the fact that the famed ape-man hadn‘t had a major screen presence in years.

And trust me, this is based on the Tarzan movies. The book, Tarzan of the Apes, is an odd little thing. For one thing, he’s not raised by gorillas, as many believe. Most of the gorillas are jerks. Nor was he raised by chimps as the old movies suggest. He was, in fact, raised by Mangani, a fictional ape species that walks upright and has a spoken language. (Phillip Jose Farmer noted that they seem more like a type of Australopithecus. But then, he would.) Apart from that, the broad strokes are the same -

1 - Deep in the jungle, in the land of adventure, lives Tarzan.
2 - Tarzan is handsome, Tarzan is strong.
3 - Go cheetah, get banana.
4 - And so they got funky.

He's really cute and his hair is long.

No, wait, I’m thinking of something else. The broad strokes of the Tarzan story are:

1 - Pasty white English people die in jungle
2 - Baby raised by apes, becomes awesome
2a - And wears a loincloth for some reason
3 - English explorers find white jungle dude and try to introduce him to civilized society.
4 - Dude thinks it’s cool at first but then annoying and goes back to the jungle.

So while all those notes are in the book, the Disney film owes the most to the wildly successful MGM films starring Johnny Weismuller. It was these that really cemented the idea of Tarzan in the mind of the American audiences. The “me Tarzan, you Jane” (which never actually happened), the faithful elephant sidekick, and just the general feel of the thing was pure classic Hollywood. Plus, of course, the famous Tarzan Yell, a trademark of MGM, licensed by Disney for the film.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it being more of an adaptation of the pop-culture idea of Tarzan than the book. After all, pretty much every Christian-themed movie owes more to Milton and Dante than to the Bible. And if it wasn’t for the movies taking over the idea of Superman in the public mind, the dude wouldn’t even fly. So this isn’t one of those Jungle Book cases where they’re ignoring the source, they’re just treating it pragmatically. And as with the Jungle Book, their instincts pay off big time.

It was at that moment that Inspector Javert knew Tarzan's parents were secretly prisoner 24601.

This is a very good movie. VERY good. Frankly, right from the start, I was taken aback at the quality. The introductory scene is a montage of Tarzan’s parents shipwrecking and building a home for themselves with their infant son at the same time the gorillas Kala and Kerchak are welcoming their child into the world. We gain instant emotional attachment to the two families and the animators and the music do a wonderful job of making us feel the love on both sides - until tragedy strikes in opposite directions as the leopard Sabor kills the gorilla baby, then the human parents shortly after. Kala hears the crying human child, and decides to adopt it, naming it Tarzan.

That’s all in the first five minutes or so, and that’s remarkably economic storytelling. The music helps immeasurably. The biggest risk Disney took here was dropping the songs, making this the first non-musical we’ve seen in nearly ten films. But in a way, they didn’t, since there are still songs, sung from the POV of the characters, pertaining to the situations. Only they’re all sung over the background by Phil Collins, who also wrote them. This works better than it has any right to. The frequent presence of Collins on the soundtrack gives the film a fine through-line, and his distinctive voice fits into the feel of the film quite well. My one complaint is that a few of the songs are a bit samey, and as I hum one, it can easily turn to another without warning. But on another level, that helps the flow of the movie, so it’s all good.

It certainly helps that he’s writing about such clear, well-realized characters. What impresses me the most is that each could have been a simple stereotype and the movie still could have been good, but they went beyond. Kerchak could have been just the angry father figure, but his resentment of Tarzan both for replacing his son and for proving such a talented and capable gorilla gives real depth to that. Likewise Kala goes further than a mere protective mothering type, and Turk, Tarzan’s best friend, moves further beyond the “I’m jealous of your new friends” personality type than I expected. As for the humans, artsy science-girl Jane has a wonderful passion for discovery and a polish of Victorian politeness that makes the scene where she first meets Tarzan, a gorgeous pile of muscles with no personal boundaries, absolutely hilarious. Clayton, the hunter who accompanies her expedition, is Gaston writ large in his heart, but his efforts to conceal that fact from the scientists he’s manipulating make him fascinating. And just when you start getting fooled yourself, he snaps and shows his true nature. The only characters that don’t surpass their stereotypes are Jane’s absentminded professor of a father and Tarzan’s neurotic elephant friend Tantor.

Angela Lansbury's performance was particularly subdued.

The voices are similarly excellent. Subtlety is again the name of the game here. Jane is voiced by Minnie Driver and Tarzan by Tony Goldwyn (the bad guy from Ghost), both of whom deliver just the right amount of emotion and intensity. Tarzan’s gorilla parents are Lance Henriksen and Glenn Close, who similarly keep things on a very even level without succumbing to Boring Voice Actor Syndrome. The most remarkable of the underplayed voiced was BRIAN BLESSED, who played Clayton. This guy has made his entire career out of shouting, to the point that I instinctively write his name LIKE THIS, and yet he plays this as the smoothest sweet-talker possible and does fantastic. I’m sad Disney never brought him back to play someone a little crazier or to be in a musical, but I’m glad he did get to cut loose once in the movie, because he also provides the Tarzan Yell, which Goldwyn wasn’t up to. Oh, BRIAN BLESSED, you are a treasure. Tarzan’s friends are Rosie O’Donnell and Wayne Knight, who go a little more cartoony, but both are very talented and underappreciated actors, and they work with it.

The animation is also phenomenal. The characters are still animated through CAPS, but a new process has put them in fully 3D CGI environments rather than painted backgrounds. They must have been working on this for a long time, because after a small moment of getting used to it, the effect looks great. There’s a lot of sunlight through leaves in this one, an effect Disney has done well, and Tarzan’s vine swinging is done with those crazy tracking shots The Rescuers Down Under was so fond of, only they‘re far more capable of pulling them off now. The character animation is clear and strong and skews to the realistic while still carrying a lot of personality. One particularly good bit of design are Tarzan’s muscles, which accurately reflect a life spent walking like a gorilla.

I remembered this movie wrong. I remembered it from way back in 1999 as having good action but being rather dry and slow. And I suppose it is, to a 15-year-old. I have no idea how I’d interpret it if I were younger. But I’m 29 now, and the appreciation I feel for this movie is much stronger. It’s extremely mature, more so even than Hunchback, whose maturity was found largely in the darkness of its subject matter. The maturity of Tarzan is in the complex characters, their interactions, and the emotions that the story brings forth from them. The death of Kerchak is one of the most moving I’ve ever seen in one of these films, and the death of Clayton, which comes complete with the silhouette of his hanged body, is one of the most brutal and most satisfying. Also, this is probably the only Disney movie where you’ll hear a character refer to another’s ‘emotional constipation’.

Upon seeing this, several children in the theater were cured of their ACTUAL constipation.

So yeah, this one is very, VERY highly recommended. Probably not for a younger kid, but definitely for an adult. I still think kids would get a lot out of it - The vine swinging and fight scenes are very well done, and there’s a lot of accessible comedy - but this is one for the more developed mind. Or possibly a very astute gorilla.


* Kerchak’s death mirrors that of The Beast from Beauty and the Beast exactly, from the positioning of the characters to the dialogue “You came back,” “I came home.” So yeah, imagine the emotional impact of that moment, only instead of romantic love, it’s familial love, and instead of turning into a handsome man, the big guy dies.

* In the book, the Tarzan Yell was described only as “The call of the bull ape” or something like that, so the MGM folks had a lot of leeway when making up the sound of it. For good bonus fun, check out the non-MGM 1930s Tarzan films from various studios, who attempted to make their own trademark-able cries. In the Buster Crabbe version, he just yells out “white guy” in the ape language.

* Since the spoken language of the Mangani is lost and Tarzan now communicates in gorilla grunts, one does wonder how he was able to identify himself as “Tarzan”.

* The reason Tarzan wears a loincloth in the book is because he wants to have fur like the other animals and that’s the only thing he can figure out how to keep on. I knew all along. In the movie, that’s never mentioned, though since Kala finds Tarzan in a diaper, it’s possible she just thought it was something important to his kind of animal and kept it going.

I am impressed with its ability to stay on, I must say.

* It is a bit weird at the end, though, when Tarzan leaves the boat with pants on and is wearing his loincloth again by the time he reaches the jungle. Maybe he was just using it as underwear.

* As a child, and even a little bit now, I experienced some gender confusion over Tarzan’s friend Turk. She’s definitely female, but if you miss the early dialogue that mentions this, it’s not very clear. Her design isn’t notably feminine, but then again, she’s a gorilla. She’s got a tough, adventurous personality more associated with a male character, but I’ve never gone in for gender roles. Her voice is by Rosie O’Donnell, who - easy jokes aside - is a very good actor and does a lower than normal voice for the character. Also, her name is ‘Turk”. Oh, but it’s short for “Turkala”. So yeah, I can see where people might get confused. Including the producers of the Broadway show, who cast Chester Gregory in the role.

* That said, I don’t think Turk’s jealousy of Jane is romantic in nature, though it’s not difficult to read that into it if you want. But Rosie O’Donnell has confirmed that they originally wrote the character as male, and didn’t change the script at all when she was cast, as she pointed out there’s no reason the ‘best friend’ role can’t be a girl, which is why I think it’s unfair to read a romantic attachment into it, because it seems to have been totally unintended. But hey, death of the author and all that jazz.

* Sabor has no lines in the movie, like the gators in The Rescuers, the goanna in Rescuers Down Under, the cat in The Great Mouse Detective, etc. It annoys me when some animals in a talking animal movie are arbitrarily mute. I guess Tarzan never had the chance to learn to speak leopard?


  1. I remember watching the behind the scenes stuff of the Disney Channel, and you left out the very important fact that NSYNC was in the movie. My inner preteen girl is a bit upset about this. They did the camp scene where the Gorillas destroy everything with their curiosity.

  2. They were (and I freely admit I was unaware of this until your comment made me look it up) only on a soundtrack-exclusive version of the song. The version in the movie was Rosie O'Donnell and Phil Collins. I listened to the track though, and they do quite well. I think those kids are gonna go places.