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.

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