Interesting man, that Edgar Rice Burroughs: ex-military, twice married – once, to the ex-wife of his best friend – a dabbler in outer space adventurist novels and a war correspondent at the time of Pearl Harbor. Burroughs was what, sadly, is no more: a true renaissance man to whom the imagination was a fruitful escape from the realities of life; an individualist with a keen sense of timing and an even more ambitious and prosaic writing style that thoroughly captivated the public’s imagination; first with bizarre exploits into the farthest reaches of space. Gene Roddenberry would have loved Burroughs. But it was another character for which the author will likely always be remembered: another rugged nonconformist: sinewy and caught unawares in his loin cloth – the ape man: Tarzan.
In an era when too few in North America knew anything about the world outside their small rural communities, Burroughs’ lurid tales of the Dark Continent and this uninhibited titan of virile masculinity proved the magic elixir to fire our collective imaginations. Burroughs’ readership for Tarzan ran the gamut from six to sixty and appealed to men and women alike for obvious reasons. Boys/men saw themselves in the part of this towering, taut figure from the jungle, taming the wild beasts with superior intellect and finely honed hunter’s skills. Girls/women quietly fanaticized about such a raw and uninhibited superman sweeping them up in his bulging arms and pressing their bosom to his naked chest. Apart from a best-selling novel, first serialized in 1912, and thereafter published in its complete form in 1914, Tarzan would also become a much celebrated comic strip, a radio program, and finally, a different kind of hero in the cinema. Adolph Hitler reportedly banned MGM’s Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) as part of his degenerate art program; the film featuring a nude swim between Olympic champion, Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan; the latter actually receiving death threats and offers to live out the rest of her days in exile – and shame – for briefly appearing in the raw. Ah me, how times have changed.
In re-conceptualizing Tarzan as a creature of Disney fiction, supervising animator Glen Keane became awestruck by two attributes inherent in Burroughs’ original character design; first, Tarzan was a skilled mimic, who had mastered the dialect of his four-legged brethren; including his adopted ape family, truly affording him the ability to ‘talk to the animals’ long before Rex Harrison’s Doctor Doolittle even entertained such a notion; and second - Burroughs’ descriptions of Tarzan’s physical prowess and agility were impossibly beyond the movements of the human body as created by nature. Nevertheless, the ape man’s athleticisms were faithfully recopied in all their fanciful virility, particularly in the celebrated graphic comic strips of the 1920’s, giving Keane a novel idea. Perhaps, this ancient man of the jungle, in his daring pivots, leaps and vine-swinging dexterity, shared more than a passing commonality with the contemporary skateboarder; a sport for which Keane’s own son shared an affinity.
In many ways, Disney’s Tarzan (1999) is closer to Burroughs’ archetypal feral man/child than any of the many lucrative cinematic adaptations gone before it; the animators, under Keane’s supervision in France, delving more deeply into human anatomy and physiology than ever before to will this jungle giant into his cartoon reality. Ultimately, any story about a muscle man wearing little more than a strip of torn cloth, barely covering his genitalia, is going to spark issues involving human sexuality – a big no-no for any Disney feature meant to appeal to very young tots and the prepubescent sect. And, I must confess, there were some moments in Disney’s Tarzan that positively reeked of sweaty pheromones and male machismo run amuck. As example, the adult Tarzan’s brutal confrontation with the vicious leopard that killed his human mother and father while he was still a baby, builds on a subliminal underlay of sexual tensions; Tarzan – without his mate – destined to establish his masculinity as a predator/victor over nature’s most vicious alley cat.
To help diffuse the heart-palpitating primal aura in these vignettes, the Disney animators have fallen back on a time-honored tradition of rank slapstick for their inspiration once Burrough’s lord of the jungle (magnificently voiced by Tony Goldwyn) meets Jane Porter (Minnie Driver), the woman who will teach him many things, including the concept of love. Alas, this latter pursuit has been completely distilled and buried under a mountain of slickly packaged double entendre, culminating in one very antiseptic kiss. ‘You Tarzan…me Jane?’ To clarify, that line is never uttered – not just in this version, but in virtually every movie gone before it. Tarzan and Jane’s ‘cute meet’ in Disney’s version takes place appropriately in the treetops after he has narrowly rescued her from a hungry pack of baboons. She attempts to break the strongman’s silence with several pert and plucky queries that he clumsily mimes back to her; the pair getting no closer to the truth of the moment until Tarzan appropriately raises a tender finger to Jane’s lips; as in ‘shut up, woman and kiss me.’ Alas, this Tarzan is far more fascinated coming face to face with one of his own kind; his oversized Neanderthal-knuckled fingers pressed firmly against Jane’s slender digits.
And this Jane is hardly the forthright, headstrong researcher following in her father, Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne) footsteps, but a rather mawkish, occasionally flirty, and thoroughly flighty female, who swoons and moons over our tawny Tarzan almost from the moment she first sets eyes on his rippling frame and flowing mane of Rastafarian brown hair. ‘Me Jane…you husband?’ The rest of the characters in Disney’s Tarzan are played strictly for laughs. Professor Porter is a bumbling aristocrat with a thoroughly unscientific mind. His guide, Clayton (Brian Blessed) is a boorish hulk who commands via courtly fear and at the point of a double-barreled shotgun constantly pointed at anything stirring in the underbrush. Tarzan’s best friends are Terk (Rosie O’Donnell); a Mohawk-ed female gorilla, all guts but no glory, and Tantor (Wayne Knight), a slightly neurotic elephant, worried about microbes in the lagoon water. This leaves the crux of our tale and most of the dramatic heavy lifting to Glenn Close’s Kala – Tarzan’s adopted ‘gorilla’ mother – and Lance Henriksen, Kerchak, protector of the band.
Tarzan is most effective in its first act, told almost entirely in pantomime under Phil Collin’s superb ‘Two Worlds’ – a musical bridge, effectively illustrating whole chapters from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel in just a few brief scenes, given to some of the most complex and powerful animation yet exhibited in a Disney feature. We witness a shipwreck during a violent thunderstorm (shades of Disney’s own Swiss Family Robinson 1960); the baby Tarzan’s human father and mother narrowly escaping with their child; forging with little more than the clothes on their backs into this tropical paradise, alas, soon to become their grave. For upon building a fabulous treehouse, complete with furniture and heirlooms (presumably salvaged from the wreck), the couple are torn to pieces by the leopard; the babe left buried under a blanket to survive on its own. In another part of the jungle, Kala and Kerchak experience the death of their beloved offspring – again, killed by the leopard who, clearly, gets around. Forlorn, Kala wanders off from the band, stumbling upon the ravaged treehouse and Tarzan, whom she almost immediately develops a maternal bond toward.
Kerchak is hardly supportive of Kala’s decision to rear this human offspring as one of their family. In fact, as time wears on, Kerchak develops a distinct distaste for the young Tarzan (voiced by Alex D. Linz); repeatedly told by Kerchak he will never truly be one of them. The child’s feelings are wounded. But he begins to evolve socially as his own creation – also as something of a born leader, trademarking the famous roar (created as a half yodel by Johnny Weissmuller for the 1932 MGM classic and forever after entered into the annals as part of the Tarzan folklore). Terk is Tarzan’s friend…well, sort of…encouraging him to acquire an elephant hair in order to prove his worth to the band. It’s a stunt, of course, but one the naïve boy endeavors to fulfill, inadvertently inciting an elephant stampede after Tantor mistakes the amphibious Tarzan for a man-eating (or in this case, elephant-eating) piranha. Another pair of songs from composer/singer/song writer, Phil Collins – the poignant ballad, ‘You’ll Be in My Heart’ and rockabilly ‘Son of Man’ and we advance into Tarzan’s adulthood. Tarzan (now voiced by Tony Goldwyn) is a buff, butch and tree-surfing muscle god who uses both his feet and hands to maneuver through the dense jungle terrain. There are sequences in Tarzan that ought to have been photographed in 3D and it is a wonder – given our present-day occupation with 3D that Tarzan has yet to make the conversion and reissue in theaters. Go figure. But I digress.
Tarzan’s friends are still Tantor and Terk; that is, until the arrival of Jane and Professor Porter and their jungle guide, Clayton. Jane predictably strays off course, losing sight of her father and Clayton, but encountering a baby baboon who she sketches in her notebook. Alas, her precocious model steals the picture; Jane tricking the tiny animal into giving it back with the promise of a banana, only to suddenly realize she is surrounded by adult baboons intent on settling the score by tearing her apart. Tarzan appears, rescues Jane with ease and carries her up into the treetops to relative safety. She discovers his name and shortly thereafter realizes an unanticipated physical attraction. Part of the success of virtually all cinematic versions of the Tarzan story is that each relies on the traditional damsel-in-distress fairy tale; Burroughs’ idea of Prince Charming having morphed into a man unashamed of his almost naked masculinity and unaware of how this woman’s touch will intrude upon his perfect world.
Jane introduces Tarzan to her father and Clayton; the latter, insincerely encouraging Jane’s reeducation of the ape man in the hopes he will lead them straight into the hideaway of the gorilla band. Alas, Tarzan is torn in his alliances; increasingly drawn to Jane – for obvious reasons – and incurring Kerchak’s ire and Kala’s disappointment. Eventually, Kala realizes she can no longer deny this son of man his rightful place among his own kind. She leads Tarzan back to the derelict treehouse where his journey first began. Discovering the clothes of his late father – miraculously preserved – Tarzan emerges from the treehouse in Victorian attire. Not long thereafter, Tarzan elects to return to England with Jane and her father, the trio unaware Clayton has given orders to the crew of the waiting ship to kidnap them once they board; Clayton pursuing the gorillas into the jungle and taking a good many captive – presumably as specimens for the zoos back home.
Realizing their friend is in trouble, Tantor and Terk board the vessel while most of its crew is on the mainland, setting Tarzan, Jane and the Professor free. Tarzan manages to liberate Kala, Kerchak and others from the band who have already been taken captive by Clayton, but not before Clayton manages to shoot Kerchak and wound Tarzan. In the ensuing struggle high atop the trees, Clayton becomes entangled in vines and is strangled to death; the moment vividly – and quite artistically – captured in silhouette as Tarzan looks on. Departing the jungle for home, the Professor encourages Jane to remain behind with Tarzan, whom she has obviously come to love. Jane leaps from the boat in full dress and stumbles back to shore in her sopping wet gown and pantaloons. Alas, the proverbial cliché for a Disney happy ending intrudes; the professor electing to stay behind as well. In the final moments, we see Tarzan, Jane and the professor swinging through the trees, the sequence concluding with a panoramic vista of the jungle set against a backdrop of waterfalls and Tarzan, perched atop a precipice, giving out with his trademarked yelp.
Disney’s Tarzan remains, regrettably, one of the last examples of the studio’s preeminence in hand-drawn character animation, utilizing computer technologies only when the genuine touch of human artistry requires a helping hand rather than a crutch to tell its story effectively. One of the film’s most appealing aspects is its fidelity to realistic jungle terrain and vegetation. Glen Keane and his team of animators actually went to Africa to soak up the flavor of the Dark Continent – Uganda’s gorilla park proving an inspirational starting point to better inform the movie’s background paintings and layouts. Returning to the studio with a wealth of documented footage shot on 150 rolls of film and video tape; Tarzan’s co-directors, Kevin Lima and Chris Buck turned their full attentions to the story behind the visuals, relying on ‘Deep Canvas’; a digital program to allow the animators a 360 degree porthole into Tarzan’s lush tropical world; the camera seemingly effortlessly moving in and out of this dense jungle foliage; the perspective in a constant heart-palpitating flux. While Keane single-handedly animated Burroughs’ muscled superhero in France, supervising animator, Ken Duncan worked on the creation of a convincing Jane back at the Burbank studios; the two constantly in teleconference; the results, a seamless blend of character interaction.
In turning to Phil Collins to score the picture, Disney Inc. made a fortuitous decision that, in hindsight has severely dated Tarzan. Collins remains an artist of rare and passionate sincerity; also, raw emotional content. Alas, the essence of his sound is iconic of a particular moment in time rather than lending itself to a more timeless air and quality. There is more than a hint of the 80’s Phil Collins in Tarzan – the drum-heaving beats of ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Strangers Like Me’ harking all the way back to Collins’ own chart-topping, ‘Sussudio’ from 1985. The score for Tarzan is undeniably poignant in the same way Elton John’s songs for The Lion King (1994) yield a magnificently rich sonic presence. But John’s music does not box The Lion King’s visuals into any sort of musical timeline. Part of the challenge with Tarzan is that Collins is on the soundtrack; his underscore playing like an extended pop-opera a la The Who’s Tommy or a concert piece in which Collins – not the characters who inhabit our story – is the real star.
In the final analysis, Disney’s Tarzan is an artifact from an era in animation, sadly, behind us. Its strengths are plainly visible to the naked eye and mesmerizing to behold; ideally, the most comprehensive and viscerally immersive visual experience yet produced under the studio’s renaissance banner, certainly since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. Alas, in hindsight, it lacks the staying power of the aforementioned movie, also The Lion King, to be a truly iconic part of the studio’s heritage. Instead, it’s a noble contribution to what I will label Walt’s second string which, after all, and, at least for Disney, is still head and shoulders above most everything else we’ve seen in the world of animation before or since.
Disney Home Video has finally come around to releasing Tarzan on Blu-ray. It’s been well worth the wait, however…well…mostly. Colors are splashy and vibrant with inky blacks and superbly balanced contrast. Fine detail is another reason to sit back and go ‘wow’! Alas, there’s significant ringing around some of these razor-sharp line drawings. There are also prevailing issues of macro-blocking in fine detail, particularly animal fur, and aliasing/pixilation, coupled with some intermittent banding and ever-so-slight built-in flicker. Tarzan is a movie of arresting visual splendor that rarely takes a breather long enough for the eye to settle on such minute distractions. But they are present, and more glaringly obvious in projection than on standard flat screen monitors. In motion, Tarzan looks fairly appealing until the eye manages to focus on one of the aforementioned oversights. Then, it becomes a game of periodically distracting the eye from appreciating the visual artistry on display – and that’s a genuine shame.
After a spate of remastered classics in 7.1 DTS Disney Inc. has retired the idea, remaining true to Tarzan’s original 5.0 theatrical mix. Alas, it’s dated somewhat, and less aggressive during the thunderous action sequences than one might expect, missing the boom-boom bass that might have blown the discerning audiophile out of his/her chair. Dialogue is nevertheless intelligibly represented and your rear speakers are in for a workout that makes the jungle atmosphere of the picture all-encompassing. Extras are all imports from Disney’s SE DVD, and included an informative audio commentary, plus a litany of featurettes that really ought to have been edited into one comprehensive documentary. It’s a minor quibble. A more prominent one is that none of the aforementioned featurettes has been remastered. The video quality is really quite horrible and subpar for Disney. Extra features – if they’re important enough to include, they ought to be cleaned up and remastered to bring them in line with current viewing standards. Of course, this too is based on the quality and format of elements being used. But what’s here has so obviously been slapped together in whatever condition it existed in back in 1999 that it really is quite disappointing. Bottom line: the movie is recommended, though not perfect. The extras are disposable at best and presented in such a way as to quickly tire and bore the eye.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)