The final movie of the period now known as the “Disney Renaissance”, Tarzan was Disney’s take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories about the feral child raised by beasts. This isn’t the only Disney movie based on Burroughs’ works; his John Carter of Mars series was also adapted into the excellent live-action John Carter. (However, unlike that movie, audiences actually watched Tarzan!)
Like all Disney movies, they take the core idea of their inspiration and mold it a bit at their discretion so they have something that is “theirs” and sufficiently family-friendly for people to watch. Names from characters in the books are lifted and placed on other, different characters. Certain plot points are modified or removed. There’s nothing really wrong with this, as long as you make a good story in the end; and although this movie isn’t the pinnacle of Disney wordsmithing, it’s plenty relatable and compelling.
This movie has a really great opening sequence sung by the amazing Phil Collins; a massive sea storm engulfs a burning ship as three survivors jump into the sea on a lifeboat. Among the three survivors is the baby that would become Tarzan, drifting towards the darkest part of Africa. The song “Two Worlds” and its lyrics would be a major theme for the plot of the movie and the relationships between the major characters. The movie is very much about the interactions between two different worlds and how they can be part of the same family; whether it is initially easy to see or not.
One of the many things that made the Disney Renaissance movies so iconic was their art. From Hercules’ expertly-executed linear designs to Mulan’s watercolor Chinese painting compositions, the animators at Disney know how to fit in the classic Disney animation language into new and fresh art styles.
Of particular note in Tarzan were the striking epic backgrounds that told the story of a massive and exotic jungle. Various shots of the movie involve the characters taking up only a minuscule portion of the screen, as the rest of the frame is taken up by majestic vistas and imaginative wildlife that are breathtakingly beautiful. So much care went into this aspect, that one of the shots was used in a teaser poster for the film; that’s something you don’t see every day.
In addition to this, the use of Eric Daniels’ then-new Deep Canvas technology (a program that allows background artists to paint directly to polygons, essentially creating CG backgrounds that when standing still are indistinguishable from flat 2D artwork) made the wild jungle and the action happening in it even more engaging and visually arresting than any previous Disney movie. Daniels won an Annie award for developing that program, which would be used even more impressively in later Disney movies such as Treasure Planet.
Just like their excellent work in The Lion King, the animators expertly recreated the nuanced behavior and movements of gorillas in hand-drawn form. All of them move and animate just as you’d expect a real gorilla to, but the big star of the show is Tarzan himself. The way they designed his mannerisms and the way he holds the weight of his body by his knuckles is fun and interesting to watch, and the animation regarding his emotions and reactions to seeing other humans really adds life to the character in a way other studious could have easily dropped the ball on.
All of the songs Phil Collins made were fantastic. My personal favorite, “Strangers Like Me”, captured the imagination of my young mind when I was a kid and still makes me feel like learning more about the world every time I hear it (of course, it also fits in perfectly with the themes of the movie and is storyboarded beautifully as a narrative piece). Speaking of narrative pieces, “Son of Man” was also a strong song that felt great listening to and worked perfectly to convey the goals of Tarzan and the relationship between him and Kerchak. “You’ll Be In My Heart” is a heartbreaking song, sung by the wonderful Glenn Close, with haunting and emotionally-destructive melodies that really grab you by the “feels”, as you will. It’s no secret why it won an Oscar. Also, “Trashin’ the Camp” is quite different from the other songs but innovative and fresh all the same; and it’s still fun to listen to with friends.
In thinking of any part of the movie I could criticize, I honestly didn’t find much I could think of. Sabor was added to the movie as a way to not have Kerchak be the one that killed Tarzan’s parents, which helped to convey why Kala would want to adopt Tarzan as she and Kerchak lost their son to the tiger; but he still felt tacked in and forgotten through most of the movie outside of his two scenes, the final of which occurs halfway through the movie(!!). Also, the crew of Payton’s ship is so one-dimensionally evil that is was actually distracting.
But hey, this was a great movie and a respectable end to the Disney Renaissance.