In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.
Having savored critical and commercial success with films like The Jungle Book and The Lion King, Disney went back into the jungle for their adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan. Due to the familiar setting, as well as some similar thematic, musical, and visual choices, it is difficult to avoid comparing the film to its predecessors. Unfortunately this more often than not is distinctly unfavorable to Tarzan. It could not help that The Jungle Book is remembered in part as the last film that founder Walt Disney had a creative hand in, while The Lion King was the biggest box office success in the studio's history.
Tarzan begins well enough with a poignant wordless prologue that shows how an orphaned boy ended up being brought up by gorillas. Playful scenes of two joyful families, one human, the other ape, are cleverly cut together to show their similarities. One mother hoists her child into the air and we cut to the other child falling into its mother's arms. The juxtapositions continue as we see the infant gorilla chased and killed offscreen by a leopard on the hunt, who then brutally slaughters the young human child's parents. The baby's wailing unites it with the grieving gorilla who decides to become the orphan's guardian.
Like Bambi and The Lion King before it, we spend ample time with the juvenile protagonist, seeing him learning the ways of the wild and getting into all sorts of mischief. The antics in this section beg for a wacky sidekick and as has become routine, Disney doubles down by giving us two of them. The Thumper to Tarzan's Bambi is Terk, a garrulous gorilla voiced with the utterly incongruous voice of Rosie O'Donnell. Hearing the Brooklynese accent coming out of an African ape is distancing and distracting the whole picture through. Terk plays a prank on Tarzan that serves as an introduction to his second buddy, the elephant Tantor. Tantor supplies the trio's super-ego, acting as a cautious, paranoid killjoy whose warnings lead to a series of comedic catastrophes. The characters are both stock roles with nothing tangible to distinguish them from the long lineage of goofy supporting animals.
While the film fails miserably when it tries its hand at comedy, the picture's biggest achievement is in its many well-conceived, surprisingly robust action sequences. The film is punctuated with several of these splendid set pieces. The best segment provides Tarzan with his introduction to his first human female, the British explorer Jane Porter. Jane finds herself being chased through the dense jungle by a congress of baboons. Tarzan swoops in to save her and the resulting pursuit through the treetops and across vines is a monumental accomplishment. The animation, blending hand-drawn characters with a new 3-D background process dubbed Deep Canvas, provides a seamless kinetic experience.
Perhaps befitting its foremost strength as an action film, Tarzan is a surprisingly violent picture. The animators do not shy away from showing the lifeless bodies of Tarzan's parents, a series of bloodstained leopard prints circling them. Meanwhile, the climax sees the poacher Clayton inadvertently strangling himself as he gets ensnared in some vines. His swinging shadow is shown dangling morbidly in the background. This gruesome death occurs moments before the noble, bullheaded alpha ape Kerchak dies from a shotgun wound. He lies against a tree, his pupils going in and out of focus, as he finally accepts Tarzan into the gorilla family before expiring. Quite a bit of mortality for a Disney picture.
The film's emotional core comes not from Tarzan falling for the porcelain charms of Jane Porter, but rather from the struggles, pain, and disillusionment of his adopted mother, Kala. The film starts with her despondent over the death of her first child and after taking Tarzan under her wing she is ostracized from the gorilla community. She defends her son and must console him when he recognizes and regrets his differences. After Tarzan meets Jane, Kala watches him drift away from her and the gorillas, silently and somberly witnessing a reality that she always knew would come to pass. All she tells him is that she wants him to be happy, with or without her. It is a decent depiction of decidedly mature themes, heretofore unfamiliar in Disney pictures.
Phil Collins provides a thoroughly Phil Collins-y soundtrack to Tarzan. The reverb-heavy synthetic pop is no less out of place in the African jungle than the jazzy jive of Louis Prima in The Jungle Book, but the songs in Tarzan are certainly vastly inferior. Collins takes a page from the Elton John playbook, placing his tried and true pop template over the most vacuous, facile lyrical treacle. The only tune with any bit of life in it is the one that actually steals its conceit directly from The Jungle Book's "I Wan'na Be Like You". Terk and Tantor, along with a posse of gorillas, descend upon the British explorers' camp. There they end up breaking dishes, banging away on a typewriter and creating a jumble of clanging rhythm that Terk finds so funky that she just needs to scat. Besides the guttural gobbledygook there are no lyrics. Perhaps that is why it is the strongest song in the picture. However, it remains an inferior jamboree on all counts.
Tarzan is considered the final film in the decade now known as the Disney Renaissance. Looking back however, this renaissance was quite a mixed bag. There were a handful of regal productions that were thwarted from greatness by either stuffiness or forced juvenilia. There was one flawed but fascinating production that beautifully pushed the visual boundaries of the animation medium to exciting new heights. There was one true masterpiece and a handful of shoddy, pale imitators. Clones that would get just one or two pieces of the puzzle right, hoping that would be enough. Tarzan falls squarely in the middle of the bunch. Another face in the crowd of squealing masses. The film has its share of charms but it neglects components essential to achieving something truly extraordinary. The moments that succeed, for instance, when we see a child raised by beasts flying happily and effortlessly through the trees, remind us that we need not be constrained by convention, that we are capable of more. Frustratingly more.