“I was saved! I was saved by a flying wild man in a loincloth.” – Jane Porter
Tarzan is the film that rounded out the 1990s era of Disney Animation. For the studio, it was the last film that would be considered a “classic Disney Animated Musical” until The Princess and The Frog’s release in 2009. Tarzan is also noted for creating the “Deep Canvas” technique, which allowed animators to create Computer Generated backgrounds that looked similar to traditionally painted images. This would allow animators to create different camera techniques, much like the Multiplane Camera that Walt Disney created in the 1930s did for his animated shorts and features. The Deep Canvas technique would eventually merit an honorary Academy Award.
Tarzan begins as our main hero is taken in a mother Gorilla, after Sabor, a leopard, kills his shipwrecked mother and father. Kala, whose own baby was taken by Sabor about the same time, convinces her husband to allow Tarzan to live with the Gorillas. Tarzan has a hard time fitting in with his new brethren, but quickly learns to be a Gorilla and becomes accepted into the society, eventually proving himself worthy by killing Sabor. Soon, he meets a crew of explorers in the jungle looking for Gorillas. This includes the lovely Jane Porter, the first of the people who Tarzan meets and the one that interests him the most. Jane, along with her father Archimedes and their protector Clayton, teach Tarzan about human life. Clayton, however, is planning betrayal, and Tarzan soon must save his family and his new friends.
One thing that always sticks out to me about Tarzan is the action sequences. The escape from the treehouse, Tarzan vs Sabor, and the climatic battle are all extremely well done. They always take themselves seriously, never feeling over the top with humor, and the small bits of humor there are in these sequences don’t feel completely out-of-place. This leaves them with the intense nature that the best Disney battles have. I especially like the Tarzan vs. Sabor sequence. It’s a great moment for the character of Tarzan.
Tarzan himself has a great arc that follows his rise, fall, and redemption within the Gorillas community. What I especially like about how the movie build’s Tarzan’s character is that there are two distinct parts to his story that form to create one fantastic one. The beginning builds Tarzan’s rise with the apes(Not Rise of the Planet of the Apes, because that is a different story altogether), and the second half builds Tarzan’s realization of his true identity and his struggle to figure out which one he is truly part of. Both of these stories are necessary to tell, and it can be very hard to pull them off without having one or the other feel a bit shallow or let down. However, Tarzan manages to make both sides of the story feel satisfactory. It truly feels like a life story is being told.
Tarzan’s story also works well because we actually care for the relationship between Tarzan and the Gorillas. What’s great about this is that this viewing is not limited to Tarzan’s adulthood. Yes, we get the relationship very well in Tarzan’s adulthood, and there are very heartbreaking moments, but it shines in Tarzan’s childhood. We see WHY he is so caring for is family. This is a great example of why showing is always better than telling. By effectively building the relationship between Tarzan and his mother, and even the antagonistic one between Tarzan and his father, the decisions and feelings he makes in his adulthood make sense, and we care for them.
Jane and Tarzan’s relationship is also a classic. Jane is wonderfully voiced by Minnie Driver, who adds a wonderful warmth to the role. The meeting between Jane and Tarzan on the tree is one of the all time classic Disney romance scenes, and has some great writing in it. Jane’s fascination with Tarzan is wonderful and presented correctly. The same thing goes for Tarzan’s fascination with the human world and Jane herself. In this relationship, Tarzan is smart yet naive, but never looks dumb. This is another film where the relationship makes or breaks the film, and thankfully, this one very much makes it. But really, shouldn’t you expect that from a film this highly ranked?
Clayton is effective villain, and great for the story. He is charismatic, undoubtedly evil, and still has great moments with the rest of the cast. His turn is always believable to the audience, and he never feels like a character who turned just because the film needed a villain. He is memorable as a character, and like many great Disney villains, has a memorable final battle and death.
Finally, the soundtrack. Of Phil Collin’s two Disney soundtracks, this is by far his finer one. To me, all the songs on the soundtrack are great, and not one of them really falters. What makes the soundtrack great, though, are the images that go along with the songs. If the images were not memorable, then the songs being sung by Phil Collins would not work. However, the images are even more memorable than the songs, and are what really make the song sequences in this film memorable. Normally, I prefer characters singing over montage singing, but the sequences in Tarzan really work well with Montages, and the story is able to quickly pace along because of the use of montages. And again, all the montages are memorable.
(Also, outside of one little glitch, Tarzan does a much better job at presenting the communication factor than Pocahontas did. Proof it can be done!)
We are at the point in this countdown where the films to follow lack true, film breaking weaknesses. Sure, I’ll list some things that annoy me, but just know that this section will continue to dwindle down and down until eventually there are no weaknesses to list! The strength of the canon everybody!
Tarzan does have a few issues though. Side characters being one of them. Though Tantor the Elephant is memorable and has a great performance by Wayne Knight (Newman!), Terk, Tarzan’s best friend, frequently falls into the “celebrity voice acting category we fell into so long ago with Home on the Range. Terk never feels like her own character or even as a necessary part of the movie. She doesn’t do anything that any of the other Gorilla friends or children could have done. Her only real moment is the “Trashing the Camp” number, which is fun but a bit weaker compared to the rest.
I also wanted it bit more from Jane’s father. He is such a fun character, and he had so much potential to steal so many scenes, but he just isn’t featured enough. Personally, I’d have like to see him more than we saw Terk.
I know that I just put the soundtrack in the strength section, I do have a few issues with it. The songs are great sure, but if you had someone who has never seen the movie listen to the songs, they wouldn’t know they are from a movie. It’s not a game breaker, but it has always bothered me. They are Disney songs that don’t feel like Disney songs.They fun to listen to, but I think that what doesn’t allow me to move this movie to the next level. Also, if you are not a fan of Phil Collins (like Matt Stone and Trey Parker), it can really take you out of the movie.
Finally, While I like Clayton, I never find it believable that Jane and her Father trust Clayton. The film presents him as too seedy and suspicious from the moment he is introduced. I can’t understand why Jane and the professor would hire him. The film needed to keep him a bit understated for a while. It would have gone a long way.
(And that minor glitch in the communication is that Tarzan says his own name first even though he was given that name in Gorilla. But the film does the rest of it so well that I can let it slide more than I should.)
BEST MOMENT AND SONG
The best moment of the film was close between many scenes, but it goes to the Tarzan’s rescue of Jane and their subsequent first meeting. Wonderful character building here, and it is a wildly fun sequence.
The best song goes to “Son of Man”, and a lot of it is because of the montage that accompanies the song. Wonderful fitting the images with the song. The song is good too, though.
As the end of an era, Tarzan certainly fits. And as the beginning of our Top 20, it fits too. Tarzan is a fantastic film with great characters, a great script, great moments and great action. And what does that say about what is to come as we approach the end of the list? I hope you stick around for the rest of the ride however long it is may take (and hopefully not too much longer.) Now the fun begins.