Tarzan Revisited

(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. 

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