Tarzan marks a significant step away from the musical structure of the Disney renaissance; there are still plenty of songs, only now they’re non-diegetic and sung by Phil Collins of all people. This small change has a fascinating distancing effect, reminiscent of Oliver & Company with that film’s combination of character-sung numbers and jaunty pop score. While at least one (‘You’ll Be In My Heart’) is a choon, it also serves to keep the viewer that little bit distant from the action, as if we’re watching the film filtered through a musical narrative lens.
This is the film that marks a turning point: the last Disney feature of the twentieth century (ignoring Fantasia 2000) and arguably still the last one to tell a relatively straight version of a classic property; while at the same time making notable advances in its use of CGI and stepping away from the musical form. It’s also a surprisingly derivative film, both in its retreading of themes from The Jungle Book and in the revisiting of a colonial narrative recently explored in Pocahontas. But although it’s destined to remain in a liminal position as the tipping point at which Disney started getting a little bit shit again, it’s a strong film in and of itself that’s surprisingly winsome, especially in its central relationship.
The film’s main problem is a bizarre tonal mix that combines jeopardy and slapstick in ways that make seriously unclear what the stakes are meant to be. The film opens with Tarzan’s parents abandoning a burning ship with him still a baby, a scene which looks like it’s meant to play seriously but turns immediately into a jolly Swiss Family Robinson romp as the parents build a tree house in the jungle; this is intercut with a harrowing scene in which two gorillas, Kerchak (Lance Henrikson, the only male ape, who appears to be the father of all the ape children, though the film judiciously looks in the other direction) and Kala (Glenn Close) fail to save their own child from being killed by a cheetah. Then later, Kala stumbles upon the treehouse to find Tarzan’s parents dead and rescues the baby from (another? the same?) cheetah, thwarting the scary cheetah through a series of slapstick maneuveres. The animation is great, but the film undercuts its own achievement in both comic and tragic directions with repeated tonal clash.
Happily, the film finds an even keel as it starts re-doing The Jungle Book. Young Tarzan (Alex D. Linz) is, within the culture of the jungle, effectively othered. He can’t keep up with the young apes (including his frenemy Terk, who in Rosie O’Donnell’s performance appears to have made a wrong turn leaving Central Park Zoo) and Kerchak refuses to acknowledge him as a son. But Tarzan commits himself to becoming as ape-like as possible, and in training montages we see him growing up and swinging through the jungle. The CGI animation is impressive here, Tarzan’s flights through the trees evoking everything from skateboarding to rollercoasters, and the 3D background whizzing around in beautiful detail.
And as he grows up, he meets Jane. Jane is a non-traditional Disney heroine – she’s relatively normal looking for one – and Minnie Driver’s voice performance makes the film. She’s ditzy, posh, full of fun, and most importantly – across the passage of time where she meets Tarzan, teaches him English, and learns about the jungle from him – there is a genuine sense of them falling in love as a side-effect of trying to learn from one another. Jane is highly accomplished as an artist, and as she captures Tarzan and mimics him before her father (Nigel Hawthorne), so too does Tarzan mimic her and learn what it means to be human. There’s a huge amount of optimism here – the idea that by learning to be like the other, one can come to fully understand them – but in the context of a Disney film, it plays empathically and surprisingly convincingly.
The tonal problems emerge again at the end, as the plans of the evil Clayton (Brian Blessed!) to capture Tarzan’s family lead to betrayal, confrontation, and the surprisingly brutal deaths of Clayton (whose silhouette is seen hanging from a creeper) and Kerchak. And the decision of Jane and her father to stay in the jungle and become tree people themselves is a little trite. But the film traces a convincing arc of mutual acceptance and of coming to terms with your own upbringing (which is pleasingly validating of adoption – it is quite clear throughout that Tarzan’s ‘true’ family are the apes, rather than his bloodline), and in its two-way portrayal of cultural exchange, it even redresses some of the issues of Pocahontas.