Year of Release: 1999

Best Song: “Strangers Like Me”

My first memory of Tarzan (other than reading the original books) relates to my childhood drawings. At age 9, I was convinced that I had the artistic skills to properly produce a shirtless, loin cloth-wearing ape man on paper. Fast forward to me later getting called into the principal’s office for rendering what my teachers thought was a naked woman. And honestly, that pretty much sums up my entire relationship with this movie. As much as I adore the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories, Disney’s Tarzan never really captures what makes the character special.

Beginning with an intense shipwreck and the pop vocals of Phil Collins, Tarzan starts off strong. Without any narration, we get the origins of our hero and his ape family. But once the story is established, things go down a strange path.

I get that this is Disney, but sometimes comedic elements (with Tarzan’s friends and Jane’s father) just draw too much attention from the dramatic elements of the story. The climatic building blocks of Tarzan’s relationship with his ape parents, and with Jane, are what really sell the emotional components of the movie. So when too much of the focus is on the comedy, those aspects of the plot feel thin when they should be the driving force of the movie.

Then there’s Clayton, a bad guy who is just too Gaston, too Radcliffe, and too McLeach to be memorable. He sticks out among the other characters as the most underdeveloped, armed with only the typical been-there-done-that motivations of greed and supremacy. And when you look at the other villain Tarzan gives us, Clayton is especially lacking when compared to leopard baddie, Sabor. If only the creative team had realized how much more Shere Khan levels of scary this character could have been, then maybe Tarzan’s climatic finale would have felt that much more satisfying.  

But the thing people always like to gripe about with Tarzan is the music. This is the first Disney movie (since The Rescuers Down Under)  to have non-traditional musical sequences. The soundtrack complements the scenes, but none of the characters (except Trek) are diegetically producing the tunes. Instead, the songs are more supposed to act as a voice to Tarzan’s feelings. And though Phil Collins does give some great and catchy melodies, they just don’t live up to the legacy that ’90s Disney (and mostly Alan Menken) had paved.


What Have We Learned?

Through looking at Disney’s late ’90s catalog, it is quite clear that the animators were thinking outside the box. They were willing to take a leap of faith, even if the results weren’t always as “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” as they had hoped. And though those artistic risks might not have resulted in the kind of Oscar or box office success as the earlier renaissance titles, they have their own fair share of victories.

We met diverse and complex protagonists, who were all beautiful and strange in their own ways. We encountered some great villains (while others could have been defeated with a simple poke). We laughed, we cried, and we sang our hearts out. These movies may not be undisputed classics, but they occupy a special corner of the Disney canon. Ignore them at your own peril.

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