Disney's 'Tarzan' Was A Hit – So Why Is It Remembered As A Disappointment?

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today's column, he discusses the 1999 film Tarzan.)

A couple of weeks ago, Robert Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, made news (as the CEO of one of the most powerful companies in the world is wont to do) by implying that Disney and Apple could have merged had Steve Jobs lived longer. This tidbit is part of Iger's new book, The Ride of a Lifetime; the possibility of a merger between the entertainment company and the tech giant was mentioned in an excerpt published in Vanity Fair. Any Disney fan would do well to read at least this excerpt, if not the entire book, for a number of reasons. Specific to this series of essays, Iger's passion and belief in the power of animation as it relates to Disney is undeniable, though how he defines some of the late-90s and early-00s-era Disney films is fascinating, if somewhat baffling.

To wit, Iger talks about what happened with Walt Disney Animation Studios after the sterling success of The Lion King. He acknowledges some expensive failures (though he includes Hercules and Fantasia 2000, neither of which — on their surface — seem like failures), and others that he defines as "modest successes", including a 1999 release that was the third-biggest Disney Renaissance hit at the box office, and is one of the biggest animated hits of the last 25 years. 

How is it, then, that the CEO of the Walt Disney Company would feel comfortable calling Tarzan, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' iconic character, merely a modest success?

Son of Man

Tarzan, just like basically every other film in the Disney Renaissance, has its roots at Walt Disney Animation Studios with Jeffrey Katzenberg. (By the time the film was released in the summer of 1999, Katzenberg was nearly five years removed from his time at Disney, showcasing just how long animation development can take.) This time around, though, Katzenberg's vision wouldn't come true, at least not how he imagined it. According to an interview with the film's eventual co-director, Kevin Lima, Katzenberg wanted a Tarzan adaptation made entirely by a new TV-focused division.

"[Katzenberg] wanted to set up a new studio in Canada to do the project and I basically told him he was crazy," Lima recounted. At the time, Lima was in the post-production phase of a film that was also essentially created by a TV-animation arm of Disney, A Goofy Movie. (That spring-1995 release was a springboard off the Disney Afternoon TV show Goof Troop.) A Goofy Movie was Lima's directorial debut; he'd previously worked as an animator and story artist on films like The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, and Aladdin. Those bona fides, at least, may explain how urgent Katzenberg apparently was, purportedly calling Lima every other day for months.

That is, until Jeffrey Katzenberg did finally leave Disney and create his own animation studio at DreamWorks. Lima didn't depart the studio, however; though he presumed that his feature-directing gig was gone, then-CEO Michael Eisner soon offered him the same plumb job of co-directing a Tarzan adaptation, announced in the industry trades in the spring of 1995. As the story goes in Howard Green's The Tarzan Chronicles, Lima reached out to fellow animator and friend Chris Buck to be his co-director, making his feature debut.

Strangers Like Me

Lima and Buck had the headwind of approval not only from Disney but, in some small way, from Edgar Rice Burroughs himself. Burroughs had reportedly wanted an animated version of Tarzan of the Apes as far back as 1936. A descendant of Burroughs shared with the Walt Disney Company a letter the author had written, in which he had said, "The cartoon must be good. It must approximate Disney excellence." And yet, even though the character of Tarzan was an iconic figure in Western literature, having inspired a film series starring Johnny Weissmuller and parodies like George of the Jungle, there had never been an animated Tarzan until Disney finally came along.

After the last few years of more mild successes (whatever Iger may dub them now), Disney was hoping to get back in the swing of things with Tarzan. Like the other recent titles, Tarzan was based on a very recognizable figure in literature. Also like many of the films of the Renaissance, it was driven by male characters. (From a financial standpoint, fair or not, the two biggest hits of the Renaissance period of the 1990s, The Lion King and Aladdin, were both male-driven stories.) Yet perhaps one of the biggest creative shifts represented in Tarzan would come from what was notably not seen onscreen: singing.

There are, of course, songs in Tarzan, but they were deliberately designed to not be belted out by the characters a la the events of The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. The Disney Renaissance, in one way or another, is largely defined by its music, down to the last entry in the series (which we'll discuss in our final entry). But the choice to make the music in Tarzan descriptive in its storytelling about the hero, both as a baby and as he grows into a vine-swinging man, was driven by two things: the caution surrounding how earlier, musically driven Renaissance hits had dwindled into less massively lucrative hits, and by the film's incoming producer. 

In Learning, You Will Teach

Bonnie Arnold shifted over to Walt Disney Animation Studios after the worldwide success of her previous credit as producer: the first feature-length computer-animated film, Toy Story. The arrival of Toy Story in the late days of 1995 caused a seismic shift in the way that modern animation could be made, specifically in terms of the stories that could be told and how to tell them. Like The Lion King, Pixar's Toy Story did have songs courtesy of a well-known singer/songwriter. But Randy Newman's songs in Toy Story were intentionally designed to not be sung by the lead characters; instead, "You've Got A Friend in Me", "I Will Go Sailing No More", and "Strange Things" all exist as a commentary on the action, expanding on the emotional development of Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear.

Having Arnold on board, after making such a big splash with Toy Story, was exactly what Lima and Disney executives like Dick Cook wanted when it came to Tarzan. As Lima said in a Chicago Tribune story at the time, "I did not want Tarzan to sing. I just couldn't see this half-naked man sitting on a branch breaking out in song. I thought it would be ridiculous." (Cook's sarcastic rejoinder: "Really? I do that every day.")

Leaning away from the musical storytelling that both made the Disney Animation studios a force to be reckoned with in the 1930s, and cemented their status as an animation powerhouse in the 1990s is hard to swallow. Within the context of Tarzan, it's awfully hard to argue with Lima: yes, if we were watching the man-ape Tarzan sing an "I Want"-style song to the heavens, it'd be pretty goofy. And in a business where money talks, it was hard to see Toy Story as a one-off fluke instead of a sign of shifting interests among worldwide audiences. But the signs of Disney shifting away from the musical entirely is something that was inextricably connected with the stumbles the studio would have in the coming years. 

You’ll Be In My Heart

It doesn't help that the songs in Tarzan lean too heavily on directly explaining what happens on screen. The first two acts of Tarzan are a fairly reasonable adaptation of Burroughs' novel Tarzan of the Apes. A baby is orphaned, after his parents' ship crashes on an island in the Congo and they're mauled to death by a bloodthirsty tiger. The human child is adopted by a loving gorilla mother (voiced here by Glenn Close), but kept at furry arm's length by its mate Kerchak (Lance Henriksen) because humans are typically unfriendly to gorillas. The boy, named Tarzan, grows up and eventually proves his worth to Kerchak, slaying the tiger that killed his parents. (It helps that Tarzan kills the tiger just as it's about to murder Kerchak.) Tarzan (voiced as an adult by Tony Goldwyn) eventually meets a few other humans, including the intelligent and winsome Jane (Minnie Driver), with whom he falls in love.

Where the Disney story diverges is in the other human characters. Here, Jane is scientifically minded but strong-willed, whereas her father (Nigel Hawthorne, in his last voice role) is scientifically minded but also very goofy. The other major human character is William Clayton (Brian Blessed), a fierce type cut from the same jib as Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. While Jane and her father are fascinated by gorillas — their intent in making a trip to the same jungle where Tarzan lives is to study them — Clayton wants to kill them and reap the rewards of his bloodshed. Where Tarzan of the Apes culminates in the title character being brought back to the mainland of England, Disney's Tarzan stays in the jungle (coming only as close as putting on a suit and boarding a boat for England). And in the end, so too do Jane and her father stay in the Congo.

And a handful of songs by Phil Collins are there to guide along the story, in a more painfully sweaty way than needed. Collins won the Oscar for Best Original Song with "You'll Be In My Heart", a lullaby of sorts that's first sung quietly and a bit sadly by Close. It's one of the only moments in the film where a character is depicted singing, and even then, Collins ends up singing the bulk of it over the soundtrack. Collins was, then and now, an extremely recognizable musician, having vaulted to stardom both through his solo career and as frontman of the British prog-rock band Genesis. Like Elton John, having Collins' presence on the music gave the film a boost of celebrity that wouldn't have existed with just Broadway-style songs.

Though Collins' music is memorable enough, the lyrical work is often quite...let's call it lacking. One song, "Son of Man", features the headscratcher of a lyric: "In learning, you will teach, and in teaching, you will learn." The most recognizable song, "You'll Be In My Heart", features the line "I know we're different, but deep inside us, we're not that different at all." It's not as if every Disney song has truly memorable, brilliant and witty lyrics. But the songs in Tarzan require a lot of heavy lifting in the lyrics – they're often the aural backing for montages that showcase Tarzan's physical and emotional growth. Yet these songs are too often baffling, circular, and nonsensical. The music itself feels fitting to the jungle setting, with an emphasis (appropriately, given Collins' background as a drummer) on percussion. The lyrics are wildly out of place, though.

Trashin’ The Camp

Because the songs in Tarzan avoid the Broadway mold, the characters have fewer bombastic emotional moments. The songs instead serve the function of driving the story along so that dialogue doesn't have to (which you could argue is something that Broadway songs do as well, but let's move on). The only true exception is "Trashin' The Camp", wherein Tarzan's jungle animal friends take to...well, trashing a human-made camp. It's mostly dialogue-free, as gorillas like Terk (Rosie O'Donnell) and elephants like Tantor (Wayne Knight) use everyday items in the camp to make something approximating music while scatting. Whatever appeal this song might have had 20 years ago is missing now; it's a head-scratching sequence that feels like a blatant attempt to give comic-relief characters something to do.

Some elements of Tarzan simply feel lacking now, with the comic relief provided by O'Donnell and Knight coming near the top. Granted, that's not how the comedy options were always going to shake out. According to one report from a few years ago, Tantor was indeed envisioned to be a neurotic elephant (perhaps a bit too much like the neurotic dinosaur toy Rex from Toy Story), but Wayne Knight wasn't the first choice. No, when Tarzan was in its initial development in the mid-1990s, the first person Disney wanted was Woody Allen.

Hindsight being what it is, you might see that name and try to make a few excuses for such casting. It's true, of course, that the revival of earlier sexual assault scandals in Allen's life only occurred within the last few years. But the original scandal itself was a major headline in the news after it allegedly happened...in 1992. So, just a few short years later, the filmmaking crew on Disney's Tarzan apparently was on board with having Woody Allen voice a neurotic elephant, a sentence that simply cannot read as anything other than deranged. 

It's equally deranged to consider why it is that you never heard the voice of Woody Allen in a Disney movie. It's not because Allen was against the script or the character, that the studio eventually blanched, or anything like that. No, we once again must bring back a recurring player in this series to explain Woody Allen's defection: Jeffrey Katzenberg. The head of DreamWorks Animation was able to lure Allen away from Disney to star in an animated film they were making, Antz. (The controversy surrounding Antz, arriving as it did a mere month before Pixar's A Bug's Life, is its own story.) Katzenberg also promised that DreamWorks would release Allen's next four films, a promise that Miramax (the then-Disney subsidiary which released films of his like Bullets Over Broadway) couldn't match.

Stop Your Crying

So Woody Allen ended up leaving Tarzan, and Disney inadvertently managed to avoid an embarrassing casting choice years down the road. Knight's a fine replacement, and is sufficiently nervous-sounding throughout. Yet among the cast members, there's just one standout: Minnie Driver as Jane. Previous versions of the Tarzan/Jane relationship could make the female character as laughable as Tarzan himself. This version, in no small part thanks to Driver's richly emotional and textured voice work, feels a lot more like her own person. The problems inherent in the film's version of the Tarzan/Jane romance have nothing to do with either Goldwyn or Driver — even as the stolid Tarzan, Goldwyn gets to have some fun with the not-oft-used character trait of the man-ape's intensely impressive gift of mimicry.

The issue is one that hounds many of the Disney Renaissance films' romances: time. Tarzan, including its end credits, is just 89 minutes long, and is structured very much as the eponymous hero's coming of age. That means we don't meet the adult Tarzan until 20 or so minutes into the film, and Jane herself isn't introduced until the 30-minute mark. With such recognizable characters, most audience members are able to at least imagine a conclusion for the star-crossed lovers. But Tarzan and Jane meet fairly quickly, and are soon besotted with each other for reasons that are only truly encapsulated during a montage scored to another of the Phil Collins songs. Here could be another case of a Beauty and the Beast-style romance, with the male character all but acting like a beast and the female character a well-read young woman with a doting if dotty father. But the characterization is lacking.

In part, that's because Tarzan, like the films released before it during the Renaissance, had the bad fortune to seem as if it was simply copying story beats from earlier Disney films. Tarzan's ascent to becoming the leader of the gorillas, a mantle he's bestowed after Kerchak dies near the end of the film, is reminiscent of Simba's ascent to the throne. And the initial conflict wherein Kerchak rightly presumes that other humans are dangerous and would rather destroy the jungle feels like an expansion of the conflict in The Jungle Book that leads Mowgli on a journey to the man-village. Tarzan and Jane have a bit of a Beauty and the Beast-style romance, compounded by Clayton feeling like a middle-aged version of Gaston.

Look to the Sky

Where Tarzan unequivocally excelled is in its animation. The design of the characters, specifically Tarzan himself, is striking and realistic without seeming like a distractingly photo-real version of humans and animals. Glen Keane, who served as supervising animator, was given the challenging task of bringing Tarzan to life. How could an animator capture all the fluid movement created by someone who's known for taking to the trees and swinging from vine to vine? As noted during the run-up to the film, he was inspired by his teenage son while he was skateboarding.

Yes, Disney's Tarzan was partially inspired by X-Games-style skateboarding. (Tony Hawk's own skateboarding styles inspired Keane's animation, too.) There are a few sequences where this visual connection makes a lot of sense. The best Tarzan scenes are when he's swinging through the trees. The scene in which Tarzan and Jane meet is most entertaining because he's rescuing her from a pack of hungry, angry mandrills. (Five years removed, and it's a far cry from Rafiki in The Lion King.) To do so requires Tarzan to not only carry and swing Jane around, but to all but slide his way down, up, and above curlicuing tendrils of tree branches. The detail in this scene, and the rapid-fire pacing, is still pretty incredible to behold in 2019.

The way the jungle itself is brought to life balances the foundations of Disney feature animation — that is to say, hand-drawn animation — with modern trends. There's a much greater use of computer animation in Tarzan, both in the way the jungle looks and in how some of its denizens are designed. The animation team had to create a whole new system to make the balance of CG (which was also used to create backgrounds in many of the shots of the film) and hand-drawn animation look legitimate and immersive. That came with a system called Deep Canvas, so impactful that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the team behind the system a special technical Oscar in 2003. And to their credit, twenty years down the line, the balance of the two styles of animation is very impressive. When you watch Tarzan, it's clear that some computer-animation trickery was utilized, but the extent of it is never distracting. Visually, this is yet another high point in the Renaissance.

It’ll Be All Right

And despite whatever Bob Iger has said now, Tarzan was a high point financially in the Renaissance as well. While Tarzan had a reported $130 million budget (because, as Iger no doubt knows better than this writer, computer-animation technology is expensive), it grossed over $170 million at the domestic box office. Adding in the film's worldwide take, it grossed nearly $450 million worldwide in 1999. Adjusted for inflation, Tarzan has made more than $300 million domestically, a number that's only been surpassed by just two films from the Walt Disney Animation Studios in the last two decades: Frozen and Zootopia. (Frozen, it should be noted, along with its upcoming sequel, is co-directed by Chris Buck, one of this film's two directors.)

Critics were kinder to Tarzan than they'd been with other recent Renaissance pictures. Looking at it now, Tarzan is a mostly fine film with sterling animation and a story that doesn't feel terribly distinctive compared to its predecessors. And one of the recurrent issues of the latter half of the Renaissance rears its ugly head again: comic relief was both an expectation and a crutch of films that attempted to tell halfway serious stories which needed to be interrupted every so often by a wisecracking best friend or sidekick. Tarzan doesn't struggle as much as The Hunchback of Notre Dame did, but every time Terk or Tantor appears on screen, the story grinds to a halt in ways that feel utterly unnecessary.

Yet Tarzan was a big hit for Disney. Some people will tell you that the Disney Renaissance ended with this vine-swinging hero (without really clarifying why, because it's not as if the filmmakers from the Renaissance stopped working at Disney after this film). But while it felt like another case of the studio successfully mining famous literature for one of their features, Tarzan was a rousing financial success without being a creative one. And, for all the film's intent to avoid showtunes, Tarzan's hit status was clear enough. In the mid-2000s, Disney's Tarzan became a Broadway show. 

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Next Time: We close out this series with a look back at the other Disney animated film released at the tail end of 1999, and the second sequel of the Renaissance: Fantasia 2000.