Tarzan is a unique Disney film. It has a lot of firsts for Disney animation, mostly concerning death. It was the last big hit of the 90’s, before the slump of the early 2000’s (ahem, Home on the Range). The amount of symbolism and allusion alone makes it stand above other Disney films. The animators had to invent new technology to create the clear look of 2D characters against a 3D background. Technology, story and character development work together to make this film excellent.
This ‘deep canvas’ technology makes the film visually stunning. There’s one point in the film, when Jane is running from the crazed baboons, that she says it can’t get any worse, then gets slowly drenched by a sudden downpour. Her yellow dress slowly darkens, just as fabric would when getting wet. It’s this attention to detail that makes the film excel.
Even though Phil Collins sings the music (again), I still really enjoy the music. I always loved “You’ll Be in My Heart”, but “Strangers Like Me” always spoke to me more. For one, it is a love song—just look at the lyrics. “Why do I have this growing need to be beside her…Every gesture, every move that she makes/ makes me feel like never before” signal the love-song side of it. But more importantly, I like that it shows that it’s okay to love something, or someone, different. There are so many cultures and subcultures that don’t mingle with one another, but that’s dangerous. People should fall in love based on who the person is, not where they come from or what they look like.
Ironically, Tarzan also tackles the nature vs. nurture debate. Think about it: a man raised by gorillas, yet he can still adapt to whatever culture he’s confronted with? Obviously he struggles with who his family is and who he wants to become. On the flip side, he was raised by both a strong, overly dominant male figure as well as a nurturing, kind mother figure. The result was a strong man, with a gentle and caring side. The only time we saw Kerchak soften was towards Kala, whereas Tarzan can be gentle with anyone. He often plays with the baby gorillas, whereas Kerchak only saves them from being stampeded to death. Which, granted, is important.
There are multiple firsts in this Disney film. The tragedy that occurs to Tarzan’s parents is explicitly shown much more than violence in other films. The bloody paw prints is one thing, but if you’re paying attention you’ll see his parents’ dead bodies lying face down on the floor. Kala and Tarzan both study the photo of Tarzan and his parents, with the glass broken only over Tarzan. His parents were no longer in danger; the broken glass symbolizes Tarzan’s present danger, as opposed to his parents’ safety in death.
Death is a main theme in Tarzan. The film opens with the alternating visuals of Kerchak, Kala and their baby and Tarzan and his parents. We see his parent’s giant ship go down, with them barely escaping. We see Kala and Kerchak playing with their baby as Tarzan’s parents build their tree house. Then we see the gorilla baby meander into the forest while everyone else is sleeping. Then we hear his screams. It’s nearly as heartbreaking as Bambi’s mom not making it back to their little nest in the bushes. Except in Bambi, we only heard the shot and saw Bambi’s reaction. In Tarzan, we see the predator, we hear the baby gorilla dying, and we see the reaction of the parents. It’s the trifecta of depression. I know Kala has to be in the heartbroken mindset to be willing to stand up to Kerchak about keeping Tarzan, but killing her baby is just too much for me. For the story to be powerful, this tragedy has to happen. But it was too much to hear the baby gorilla’s dying screams. That kind of terror is clearly heard, and the sound department truly hit their mark.
We see more death when Tarzan kills Sabor, the jaguar that killed his parents and Kala’s baby. It’s an intense and emotional scene. I couldn’t help but say out loud, “But there are way more gorillas—if they just work together, they’ll defeat Sabor easy-peasy.” But then Tarzan wouldn’t finally earn Kerchak’s trust, so I guess I see the story arc. But still.
Even more death comes with the villain. Once again, it’s implied death. But for the first time, a Disney villain is killed by hanging. James brought to light an interesting point that I’ve thought about before. When a villain destroys themselves (Mother Gothel in Tangled, Clayton in Tarzan) the hero still tries to save them. The hero, in this case Rapunzel or Tarzan, don’t want the villain to die; they should be served formal justice (I started to write ‘proper’, but both their crimes are pretty terrible, so death isn’t improper). The hero’s willingness to save even those who tried to do them harm demonstrates just how inherently good they are.
I did like the allusion to adoption. It will always be hard for people to acclimate to new families and cultures. Tarzan is a terrific example of that. He struggles to fit in, yet finds close friends (who save his life) that are true and good. He struggles to gain the support of Kerchak, yet ultimately succeeds. Regardless of how different the two parties may seem, they find a balance. I like that.
And how could I not love the (literal) jungle acrobatics? Jane spirals, football-style, through the trees in the conclusion of the film. Tarzan's feet movements were based on skateboarder Tony Hawk (this movie came out back when he was just newly popular, as was skateboarding), but clearly someone was watching some circus videos because those acrobatics are big-tent-awesome.
My main issue with the film is that is seems to take place in a few dozen different time periods. Kipling, Darwin and Victoria weren’t in the same places at the same time. Jane and her father bring an automatic typewriter, a phonograph, a projector and projection screen with them, yet wear clothing from the 1800’s (Victorian England). The discrepancy in time periods is jarring, because in so many ways the film is detail oriented.
The opening sequence is a bit off as well. For one, that ship was HUGE. So were Tarzan’s parents the only two people to survive, or the only two people on it? And if the ship was on fire, how did they salvage so much of it (ahem, windows?!) in order to build the most awesome tree house ever (minus the non-jaguar-proof aspect)? And if Tarzan was an infant (wearing what appeared to be terribly close to disposable diapers), he would have had to have been born on the ship—which means a photograph of the three of them wouldn’t have existed. And where the heck were his parents going when they became shipwrecked? Also, jaguar’s don’t live in Africa, they only live in South America. Well, there goes my detail-oriented compliment.
Of course there’s a blatant Lion King reference. When Kerchak dies and Tarzan is taking leadership over the family, he crouches (gorilla-style) and raises his chin in the air, then pounds his chest and does his token Tarzan yell. All in the rain, after a big battle. Yup, someone definitely watched Simba’s taking-over-the-pride sequence. Surprisingly, there were also quite a few Pocahontas references. Tarzan’s and Jane’s hair regularly blow over the phases, a la Pocahontas in the beautiful scene when John Smith first sees her. But, more blatantly, is Kerchak’s speech about the humans. He tells the family to stay away from humans, as they are dangerous and different is bad! Sounds awfully close to Pocahontas’s dad’s speech when the Englishmen arrive.But it’s because of these scenes that are so reminiscent of other Disney animated features that the film is excellent. It’s the same mindset, the same craft that made the Disney Renaissance such a success. And I’m getting closer and closer to The Lion King, and thus to the Disney Renaissance films that began my Disney obsession long, long ago.