‘Tarzan’ at 25 – Review

Tarzan (1999)
Directors: Kevin Lima, Chris Buck
Screenwriters: Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White

Starring: Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Glenn Close, Rosie O’Donnell, Brian Blessed, Nigel Hawthorne, Lance Henrikson, Wayne Knight

In 1999, Disney Animation Studios were at their peak following a decade of both critical and commercial success during the so-called Disney Renaissance. In this period, new directors were platformed, the studio embraced traditional musical storytelling (spearheaded by Broadway writers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken), and for the first time ever an animated film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (Beauty and the Beast). On the cusp of a new century, Disney began to transition into a new era of films, moving away from traditional fairy tale narratives and into a period of adventure movies without princess protagonists. At the crux of this shift, from the renaissance into this new style, came Tarzan.

25 years later, Tarzan remains a stunning film with an anthemic soundtrack from Phil Collins that has since become iconic. It features beautiful hand-drawn animation, memorable voice work by a cast of prolific actors, and a maturity in its themes that ensure this film resonates no matter your age.

The film, loosely based on the classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, follows the eponymous Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn, with Alex D. Linz providing the voice of Tarzan as a child), who is found and subsequently adopted by the gorilla Kala (Glenn Close) after the death of his parents at the hands of a leopard. When a party of English explorers come looking for gorillas, Tarzan is faced with his own kind for the very first time, and so he begins to understand what it means for him to be a man. He also finds himself falling in love with one of the exploring party, Jane Porter (Minnie Driver), and facing hunters for the first time in the form of the villainous Clayton (Brian Blessed) – a new character added for this adaptation. 

It’s a decidedly dark film for this era of Disney: the opening ten minutes alone include a shot of Tarzan’s family caught in a blazing shipwreck, Kala and Kerchak’s (Lance Henrikson) child being killed by a leopard, the whole gorilla pack being displaced, and Tarzan’s parents also being killed by a leopard. But the darkness allows the opportunity to tap into some deeper themes.

The film’s central theme is exploration; this is present in both Tarzan’s uncovering of humanity, but also Jane, Clayton and the Professor’s (Nigel Hawthorne) exposure to the jungle. For all these characters, the dichotomy between man and nature is viewed through a different lens, with Tarzan portraying a life in-between worlds. One of the most fascinating ways this is portrayed is through the use of language and perspective – depending on who the scene is being framed around, characters from the opposing world will remain silent, or will only speak in a language that is not understood to them, and therefore not understood to us as the viewer. It’s a subtle choice, but the intentionality of it highlights the stark contrasts at play here. Vitally, this is paired with the repeated motif of comparing heartbeats, illustrating that similarities between characters (and therefore all creatures on Earth) are more intertwined than might be expected. 

Another key theme of the film is family, and particularly non-traditional nuclear families. The relationship between Kala and Tarzan is a beautifully rendered one, and when contrasted with the stoic disapproval of Kerchak, is even more gentle and compassionate. Kerchak’s reminder to Kala that they cannot replace the son they’ve lost poses an interesting question regarding the motives of her adoption, but her deep maternal instinct resonates with a genuine and kind heart. The moment where we finally see Kerchak acknowledge Tarzan as a son is one of the most profound scenes of the film; one that is sure to warm the heart of every viewer. When Professor Archimedes and Jane are introduced, they take Tarzan under the wing in another type of adoption – where Kala has raised him to live and thrive in the jungle, the Porters seek to educate him on the human world he missed out on. The Porters welcome Tarzan into humanity, and their family unit, with open arms.

While dealing with such heavy themes, Tarzan follows the Disney Animation tradition of chucking in some comic relief in the form of animal sidekicks (voiced here by Wayne Knight and Rosie O’Donnell). While the scenes between Tarzan, Tantor (Knight), and Turk (O’Donnell) can feel a little reductive, they do show deep emotional bonds between these characters, and the joys of friendship with those who are different from who we consider ourselves to be.

The other key way in which the film softens itself is through the use of Phil Collins’ musical narration. When you listen to the songs in the context of the film, they simply explain what we are seeing on screen – a creative choice that could have come across as silly but is simply too musically impressive to be considered so. The key change in “Son of Man” as Tarzan transitions from boy to man is an all-timer in the Disney canon, and there is good reason that “You’ll Be In My Heart” won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2000. Collins’ songs also flow effortlessly with Mark Mancina’s score, which beautifully illustrates both the wonder and the danger of the jungle. 

Tarzan is also a treat visually, with the animation making the most of the advancing technology of the time to achieve some impressive feats. A scene in which Tarzan slides across branches as he moves across the jungle is particularly noteworthy – the sheer fluidity of the movements is so dynamic, and flows with such ease, that when you remember that these are individual frames of drawings, you are left overwhelmed. Another example of visual mastery is evident in a scene in which Jane describes meeting Tarzan to her fellow travellers – having chosen to let Minnie Driver improvise her dialogue, it ended up being one of the longest sequences of animation ever put to film. Glen Keane’s character animation of Tarzan himself builds upon what he previously achieved with Ariel at the start of the Disney Renaissance ten years prior, with so much being communicated to us simply through their big eyes. This particular character design and animation style makes Tarzan a deeply compelling protagonist, despite him existing on a plane so different to where we understand ourselves to be. 

Such technical achievements help to illuminate that which is most important to Tarzan, and that’s its heart. It is Tarzan’s emotional connection with each of us, its audience, that makes it a gem in the Disney Animation crown even today, 25 years later. So much care has clearly been taken with every aspect of the creative process, and the characters feel real and nuanced in a way that defined the films of Tarzan’s era of Disney filmmaking. Tarzan will make you yearn for more of that in Disney’s current output, and likely forge a deep nostalgia for the past within all who revisit it a quarter of a century later.

Score: 19/24

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Recommended for you: Disney Renaissance Movies Ranked

Written by Rehana Nurmahi

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