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.

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