51 Days of Disney (Day 37): Tarzan

We move from the far East to the jungles of Africa for the last entry into the Disney canon for the 20th century.

A young couple escape a burning and sinking ship off the coast of Africa in the late 1880’s and land near a jungle where they are stranded, but make the best of it. They build a large treehouse out of the wreckage of the ship that has washed up on shore and begin their new life in Africa. Meanwhile, Kerchak and Kala (Glenn Close), two gorillas, have a family of their own, but their child is killed and eaten by the leopard Sabor. The herd moves on to find new nesting grounds, but Kala runs from the group when she hears the cries of a baby.

The cries lead her to the treehouse where Sabor has killed the young couple, but the baby survived. She saves him from being attacked by the leopard and adopts him, much to the chagrin of Kerchak. She names the baby Tarzan and treats her as though he is her own child, but he cannot do all of the things that the gorillas can, being that he’s human, so he finds his own way of doing things. He is helped in this venture by his friends Terk, a female gorilla voiced by Rosie O’Donnell, and Tantor, an elephant voiced by Wayne Knight (who is not playing his normal role as Newman from Seinfeld and as such made me not recognize him until I saw a cast list).

When he reaches adulthood, Tarzan is attacked once more by Sabor, but this time the ape man reigns triumphant. He kills Sabor and presents her corpse to Kerchak in some brutal way of saying that he should be welcomed with open arms as a full member of the herd. This sentimental moment is broken up by the sound of gunshots off in the distance, Kerchak leads the herd away, but Tarzan goes off in search of the strange, new noise. He discovers that the source of the noise came from a hunter named Clayton who is guiding Professor Porter and his daughter Jane (Minnie Driver) in an expedition to study gorillas. Professor Porter and Clayton walk off into the forest, but Jane stays behind and does a sketch of a baby baboon who likes the drawing and steals her sketch book. Jane tracks the little thief down, but he is not giving up the drawing and has a whole army of baboons ready to help him out. They attack the frightened girl, but she’s saved by Tarzan who is completely entranced with the idea that there are creatures like him in the world.

Kerchak forbids anyone in the herd from interacting with the new strangers, but Tarzan can’t stay away. He is gripped with an obsessive desire to learn more about Jane’s world and the feeling is replicated by Jane about his world. Clayton decides to use this to his advantage and uses Tarzan to find the gorillas as so that he can capture and sell them off for a large sum of money. Unfortunately for Tarzan and Jane, the boat arrives that will take Jane, the Professor, and Clayton back to England. This leaves Tarzan in a terrible predicament, should he stay with the family he has or leave and possibly find a new one? Eventually, Kala shows Tarzan where she found him and he decides to leave for England, but makes sure to tell Kala that she will always be his mother. Once on the boat, Tarzan, Jane, and the Professor are captured by the crew led by Clayton and he sets off to find and capture the gorillas. Tarzan must escape and save both of his families in the process.

It should be noted that this film has one of the most gruesome villain deaths in the Disney canon, and it is made even worse by the fact that it happens off screen, which makes you imagine exactly what happened in intense detail.

The tree surfing idea was brought upon by the resurgence in popularity of skateboards during the development of the film and when combined with Tarzan’s vine swinging created some sort of crazy and awesome version of Parkour. Ultimately it’s something that is almost completely useless within the context of the plot, but it makes for some very fun to watch methods of travelling through the jungle.

Until 2010’s Tangled, Tarzan was the most expensive Disney animated film partly due to the creation of the Deep Canvas program. Deep Canvas is largely what makes Tarzan look so amazing visually. The program allowed for the creation of CG backgrounds that look like paintings. This effect happened largely through the fact that you can see “brush strokes” on the backgrounds which gives them depth and mass and ultimately makes them look and move like they’re real, while still looking in place in an animated film. Even the animation looks better in this film. I don’t know if it’s because of the better backgrounds or if it is just because the animation is flat out better, but the film looks amazing. Deep Canvas ended up winning a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy in 2003.

The score for the film was done by Mark Mancina and it definitely fits the epic and action packed tone of the film with some larger than life pieces that use both traditional orchestral sounds combined with some more African nuances. Phil Collins wrote the songs and all of them are fantastic, which is a welcome change of pace from the spotty performance of the most recent Disney films from this period. Phil Collins’ skill with the drums definitely helped with this film as it helps with making the songs sound in place in the African setting. The real stand-outs are “Son of Man” and “You’ll be in my Heart” which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year. Tarzan is the last animated Disney musical for a number of years and it actually tried something new with the formula. The songs are not actually sung by the cast of the film, they’re all actually sung by Phil Collins and it works very well for this film. I wouldn’t want every Disney musical to be like this, but this style of musical is going to come up again later and in an improved form.

Tarzan is really the first animated Disney film to have much of a park prescience since the Lion King. There was the Tarzan Rocks show that ran from around 2000 to 2006 in the Theatre in the Wild at the Animal Kingdom park. The show was essentially a live rock concert combined with some Broadway-esque show elements and various skateboarders and rollerbladers. Combining all three of these elements at once seems like it would be a recipe for confusion, but the show was immensely popular and surprisingly worked despite the three contrasting ideas. In 1999, the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse at Disneyland was made over into Tarzan’s Treehouse. The attraction is a simple walkthrough attraction with some characters from the film and various interactive elements. The attraction was also built at Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005, but took on a much larger size as it takes fills the role of Tom Sawyer’s Island for that park.

Tarzan is an action packed movie with fantastic animation and some jaw dropping backgrounds and equally impressive technology. All of these make Tarzan a fitting end to the period known as the Disney Renaissance.

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