Tarzan Thursday: Tarzan (1999)


In 2012 the character of Tarzan celebrated his 100th year in print. A serialized version of the story first appeared in 1912. A hardcover collection of Tarzan of the Apes first appeared in 1914. Being in the middle of the Tarzan centennial period it’s an opportune time to (re)visit many of the screen renditions of the character. Previous posts in this and other series can be found here.

As I have referenced several times in the past, there was a time when I wandered away from Disney fare but alas I have come home. In looking back it lasted maybe a decade or so. Now, having been back I am occasionally catching up. Thus, having tracked down many Tarzan titles over the past two years revisiting many and parsing them out and finding what in each typically does not work for me I figured it was time to give Disney’s rendition of Tarzan (the initial one) a shot.

As it turns out this film is a nearly unqualified success in both what it does in terms of telling a Tarzan story but also in its smooth manipulation of the standard Disney formulae. In terms of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation, as best as prior cinematic adaptations are concerned it distills merely one book, Tarzan of the Apes, and adapts that to tell its story. So far as Disney has been concerned there was no other blueprint to go off of because they were tackling the tale for the first time.

With an opening that is dialogue-free, save for Phil Collins’ source music; the film begins rather quietly and powerfully. The connection established between an orphaned babe and Kala, a female gorilla who rescues him and raises him as her own. The technique of animation allows for more exacting and concise editorial decisions about what needs to be shown. Since there are no live animals, but ones constantly under control of the animators, the temptation of cutting to something for cute factor is gone. Clearly, cultural mores changed over time, but the fact that this film deals strictly in an origin allows it to convey characters on a more human level, and avoid pitfalls some past films faced.

Tarzan (Disney, 1999)

Interesting from a Disney standpoint is that the characters do not sing, the music is played as part of the score. There’s one moment of instrumentation but they are not anthropomorphic chorus members this time. Tarzan’s sliding about as if strapped to an invisible surfboard through jungle trees gets a bit trite but it does add a controlled kinetic element and makes him seem superhuman. Also a stumbling block that is overcome is that of language. It takes some suspension of disbelief, but Tarzan and his family can talk to one another, but when he meets Jane, her father, and Clayton; he can only grunt at first and then he learns to parrot and eventually understand. This is well-covered with artful montages.

By getting away from certain conventions that other Tarzan movies set, and spinning the tale a Disney way, while also tweaking certain expectations of a Disney film the road to success is already paved. In a pleasurable surprise, however, the film also does manage to tug at the heartstrings like most Disney fare does – more strongly here. Also, Disney flips the script on a template established in The Jungle Book. A successful restructuring of a given pattern can be a joy to watch, conversely a failure of such an attempt is difficult to deal with.

Taking all that in mind, with so many other versions under my belt, and with the hallmark Disney delivery of the origin, this may be the Tarzan film I was looking for all along the one that combines adventure, emotion and the intrinsically fascinating things about this tale in one package.