1999 marked a turning point for the Walt Disney Animation Studios in more ways than one. It was the ten-year anniversary of the release of The Little Mermaid, which had heralded the company’s veritable rebirth in the subsequent decade. It saw the release of Toy Story 2, the third critically-acclaimed film produced in a lucrative partnership with the computer-animation pioneers over at Pixar. And the company was not concentrating all of its efforts on computer animation; by that time, the Disney animators had further revolutionized the art of traditional animation through the development of a technology called “Deep Canvas,” which crafted highly-detailed CGI backgrounds that looked remarkably hand-drawn. Ultimately, this innovation would completely transform the final traditionally-animated film of the so-called “Disney Renaissance” period, Tarzan.
Tarzan, (very) loosely adapted from the novel Tarzan of the Apes (and its numerous sequels) by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is the story of a human boy who, upon being stranded on a tropical island off the coast of Africa in the 1800s, adapts to his environment after being adopted by a troop of gorillas. His parents, survivors of a devastating shipwreck, are killed by a leopard while the boy is still an infant, and he is subsequently adopted by Kala (voiced by Glenn Close), who names the boy Tarzan (Alex D. Linz). Kala’s mate, Kerchak (Lance Henrickson), does not care for the human interloper, but Kala persists and raises Tarzan as her own. Years later, a now grown-up Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) encounters Jane (Minnie Driver) and her father, the bumbling Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne), who have come to the island to study the gorillas. They are accompanied by Clayton (Brian Blessed), a big-game hunter who secretly wishes to capture the gorillas and take them back to England to sell. As Tarzan and Jane fall in love–much to Kerchak’s displeasure–they also fall prey to Clayton’s machinations and must find a way to stop him before Tarzan’s gorilla family is torn apart.
As I mentioned before, Disney’s version is an extremely altered adaptation of Burroughs’ original tales. In much the same way Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was severely altered in its journey to the animated big screen, so too was Tarzan virtually sanitized by Disney’s family-friendly police. In Burroughs’ stories, Kerchak (who is an ape, not a gorilla) kills Tarzan’s father (the boy’s mother dies in childbirth) and is Tarzan’s greatest rival among his adopted “family.” Tarzan is eventually challenged by Kerchak and kills him in order to take the ape’s place as the group’s leader. Also, in the first novel, Tarzan’s adoptive mother, Kala, is killed by a member of an African tribe, and he seeks revenge by killing the man responsible for her death. The Clayton in the first Tarzan novel is actually the title character’s cousin, William (Tarzan’s real name being John Clayton, Lord Greystoke), and has inherited Tarzan’s rightful title in his absence. The plot device regarding Clayton’s evil intentions for the gorillas was invented for the film; his main function in the first two books in Burroughs’ series is as a romantic rival for Tarzan. Additionally, the author depicts Jane Porter as initially betrothed to William (before eventually becoming Tarzan’s wife in a subsequent novel), and she is not British but American.
Still, despite these alterations to the original text, the film retains an element of darkness in the manner by which the villain, Clayton, is dispatched–he dies, somewhat gruesomely, by hanging, as his neck is caught in a vine and subsequently snaps. Though this moment is obviously not shown altogether graphically in the movie, one must imagine that it could be disturbing for some young’uns among the film’s viewership.
Tarzan is a gorgeous piece of animation, due in large part to the development of the Deep Canvas technology. This allows for the backgrounds of the film to be created in 3D–in other words, rather than serving as static backdrops for the action of the movie, the two-dimensional characters are able to move realistically through the backgrounds, which themselves do not appear to be computer-generated, but are instead meticulously designed to appear hand-painted. Take, for instance, the segment embedded below, in which a young Tarzan resolves to do whatever possible in order to become a better “gorilla”:
Starting at 1:27 in the video, Tarzan begins swinging across the screen on a series of vines. Several seconds later, the camera shifts, and instead of merely going across the vines, Tarzan now appears to be swinging through them, directly toward the screen. In this way, the character is able to move through the entire environment of the movie, rather than being stuck against a painted backdrop as in previous films. The movements of the camera are unusual in Tarzan because they add to the three-dimensional feel of the movie–the filmmakers are able to use realistic tilting, twisting motions that were virtually unheard of in animation prior to the technological advancements showcased in this film. Watch the clip through the ending, as a now-adult Tarzan begins to “surf” through the trees, moving lithely from branch to branch, vine to vine, as the camera follows closely behind. Before Deep Canvas, the animators would have had to track the motion from side-to-side, missing the moments in which Tarzan slides neatly through a hole in a tree or cavorts among the heavily-shaded branches. But here, we are not merely witnessing the movements from a distance but tracking every single maneuver as it happens. We see everything. And everything we see is utterly breathtaking.
The voice cast is largely impeccable, though once again, Disney could not help themselves and had to throw in a couple of well-known comedians voicing funny animal sidekicks–Tarzan’s best gorilla friend, Terk, over-performed by a hammy (and loud) Rosie O’Donnell, and Tantor (Wayne Knight), an elephant whose personal insecurities are rivaled only by Toy Story‘s neurotic Rex. As for the other animal characters, Henrickson brings the right touch of menace and distrust to his vocalization of Kerchak, and Glenn Close is a soothing maternal presence as Kala (FYI–this was not Close’s first voice role in a Tarzan film–she also dubbed the vocals for Jane over thickly-accented Southern actress Andie McDowell in the 1984 movie Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes). As for the humans, Goldwyn and Driver are both simply marvelous–the former nails Tarzan’s hesitant acceptance of his human heritage and his determination to prove himself to adopted father Kerchak, while the latter is joyously daffy as fish-out-of-water Jane. Hawthorne is delightful as Jane’s intellectual goofball of a father, while Blessed’s performance as Clayton is somewhat reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston–the two could be blood brothers (Blessed also has a small second voice part in the film–he provides the vocals for Tarzan’s famous chest-beating yell). And though he doesn’t have a vocal role, another star played an important part in the development of the film–if Tarzan’s moves as he “skates” and “surfs” through the trees look somewhat familiar to you, it may be because those character movements were inspired by skateboarding legend Tony Hawk.
You can’t mention Tarzan without talking about its amazing soundtrack, scored by Mark Mancina with songs written by pop/rock superstar Phil Collins. The musician penned four popular singles for the film: “Two Worlds,” “Strangers Like Me,” “Son of Man,” and the obligatory love ballad, “You’ll Be in My Heart.” The latter song actually differs from many previous Disney love songs in that it is essentially a lullaby, sung by Kala to her newly-adopted son as a heartfelt reminder to the boy that he’ll always have a place with his “mother.” The tune has taken on new life in the years since its release, however, and has become a popular wedding theme. “You’ll Be in My Heart” won Phil Collins the Academy Award for Best Original Song–an achievement that was mercilessly parodied on the television series South Park (that show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had also been nominated in the same category for their song “Blame Canada” from South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Their animated revenge included Collins’ Oscar getting stuck in … well, a place that isn’t all that sunny). Collins and Mancina, incidentally, went on to collaborate on another Disney score, for 2003’s Brother Bear.
Tarzan allowed Disney to end the century with a bang. Though it was ultimately the most expensive animated film ever produced by the studio–its budget ballooned to over $150 million (a total that was demolished with last year’s release of the $260 million Tangled)–Tarzan was a critical and commercial success. Its box-office take greatly surpassed that of the two films released before it, Hercules and Mulan. By most critics’ estimation, Tarzan marked the end of the Disney Renaissance period. Throughout much of the subsequent decade, the studio’s traditionally-animated films were, by and large, financial disappointments (with the exception of 2002’s Lilo & Stitch). Movies like The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002), and Home on the Range (2004) barely broke even, if at all. It wasn’t until the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog and 2010’s Tangled that Disney’s traditional animated films began making a mark once more at the box office. Tangled especially was a gigantic hit for the studio–in fact, it is second only to The Lion King as the highest-grossing film ever released by the Disney animation folks. The to-date modestly profitable release of this year’s Winnie the Pooh film notwithstanding, it remains to be seen if the company’s recent successes will usher in yet another “Renaissance” period of technical innovation, inspired storytelling, and sheer entertainment.
Well, folks, after almost an entire year (comprising 36 posts plus an introduction), we have finally reached the end of our examination of the classic Disney canon and the Disney Renaissance (albeit about two months behind our original schedule, which is entirely my fault–so Carrie and Nikki, aim all boos, hisses, water balloons, and coconut custard pies with whipped cream in my general direction). But never fear–our Saturday Morning Cartoons series will continue! Obviously, there is so much more to the world of animation than Disney, and from here on out, we will largely be focusing on work from other studios and production companies–shorts, snippets, feature-length presentations, etc.
And, of course, we’ll undoubtedly be revisiting The House of Mouse again in the future, because our collective love for all things Disney will likely never die.