Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Disney's Tarzan (1999)

Disney's version of Lord Greystoke, king of jungles and apes, is notable for being the only animated theatrical adaptation of Tarzan. It is also notable for being Disney animation's last major hit, earning more money than Hercules and Mulan and being the first (and last) to debut at #1 in the box office since Pocahontas. Released in 1999, it also marked the end of Disney's renaissance in the Nineties while setting up the disappointing experimentalism of the 2000's, begetting direct heirs in Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet.

"Disappointing" is a term that should, of course, be qualified. Disappointing by box office standards, absolutely. Part of the formula invented by Tarzan was to dispense with the musical format. Mostly gone were the song and dance numbers which have for so-long formed Disney's bread-and-butter. With the exception of the "Trashing the Camp" sequence that reportedly existed only by the demand of Rosie O'Donnell (who voiced Tarzan's ape pal Terk), musical numbers were replaced by montages set to original songs by Phil Collins. Collins repeated his performance for Brother Bear and John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls provided the same for Treasure Planet. Atlantis did away with songs entirely and Lilo and Stitch used more Elvis Presley songs than Presley's own movies.

Tarzan, probably quite consciously, introduced a new line of human male heroes to offset the Disney Princess line invented roughly around the same time. Granted they already had Aladdin and Hercules, but adding Tarzan, Milo Thatch, Jim Hawkins, and maybe Kenai couldn't hurt. Consequent to eviscerating the musical numbers and creating a line of male heroes, Tarzan effectively created the Disney animation action movie. Unfortunately, despite the mockery suffered by Disney for only producing kiddie fairy tale films, few moviegoers will bother with Disney for doing anything else and the animated action movie was a failed venture.

So understanding that people in general have no taste, how does Tarzan work as a film? The fan of the Ape Man will automatically notice that it does not hew especially close to the book. Jane and her father are English instead of American (because the English are more Old Timey!), the murderous Terkoz who died in combat against Tarzan has been reduced to Tarzan's wacky pal Terk, the murderous Kerchak also killed by Tarzan is neither, there is no D'Arnot, and Clayton is more straightly villainous with no indication of being Tarzan's cousin or of Tarzan being John Clayton, Lord Greystoke. Tarzan also indulges in cringe-worthy X-TREME!! sports like branch-surfing (Jim Hawkins did X-TREME!! solar-surfing) and for some reason there are ring-tailed lemurs in east Africa. This version has most definitely been "Disneyfied," for good or ill.

It is a forgivable offense on two counts. The first is that there has never been a truly accurate adaptation of the original novel. The most fondly regarded version of Tarzan, being Johnny Weissmuller's, bears only the most fleeting resemblance to the source material and that was by design. Edgar Rice Burroughs had a clause written into the contract stating that the classic MGM films could use the Tarzan and Jane characters but could not use any of the other characters or plots from the novels! The only accurate portrayal of the character, The New Adventures of Tarzan serial from 1935, was a wholly original work plotted out by Burroughs himself. The second, from which the first developed, is that Tarzan of the Apes is practically unfilmable. It is an episodic pulp novel mostly preoccupied with Tarzan's coming of age. It even ends on a cliffhanger!

Given that there has never been an accurate film version of an unfilmable book, Disney's Tarzan stands up well for what it is. Writers Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, and directors Chris Buck and Kevin Lima teased out the theme of belonging and identity latent in Burroughs' tale of jungle escapism. A very effective montage introduces Lord and Lady Greystoke, their abandonment on the eastern coast of Africa, their attempts to create a life for themselves, death beneath the fangs of Sabor and Tarzan's discovery by Kala. We then fast-forward a few years into Tarzan's childhood where we see his attempts to overcompensate for his difference from the other gorillas by becoming a daredevil, with predictably disastrous, slapstick results. Another montage sees Tarzan through adolescence, learning to take advantage of his human abilities to define his role in the group. Then along comes Professor Porter, Jane and their Great White Hunter guide Clayton, which throws everything asunder and gives Tarzan the chance to really prove to himself and everyone else - human and gorilla - who he is and everything he can be.

The outsider learning to find acceptance by accepting themselves is a good moral conveyed well in Tarzan.

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