Disney Animated Features
<< Mulan | Fantasia 2000 >>
Release Date: 18 June 1999
With the single exception of The Rescuers Down Under, every one of Disney's animated features since Oliver and Company had been full-fledged musicals, with the characters belting out Broadway-style show tunes at nearly every opportunity. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it changed with Tarzan.
Granted, there are five songs with vocals in Tarzan, but for the most part, it is Phil Collins singing them -- not the characters. That's where Tarzan differed from Disney's recent films. It's a different style, and it works for this film. It's certainly not a stretch to picture Disney's Tarzan singing a soaring ballad of dreams and longing, but its absence is, perhaps, a refreshing change.
The story of Tarzan, created by Edgar Rice Burroughs nearly 100 years ago, is one of the most adapted stories in history, yet (with the dubious exception of George of the Jungle) not one depicted often in animation. This was odd, as Burroughs himself stated that only animation could possibly depict Tarzan as he imagined him -- and that only the Disney studio had the expertise to do so. It took Disney many decades to finally take him up on the offer (after extensive negotiations with his estate).
Perhaps as repayment for Burroughs' vote of confidence, Disney created an innovative new technique called Deep Canvas for this film, which allowed truly three-dimensional background scenes to be used underneath traditional two-dimensional animation. The purpose is the same as the ancient multiplane camera technology Disney developed in the 1930's (used, for example, in Pinocchio): to create backgrounds in which the perspective can change as the logical camera moves across a scene.
It's not just the backgrounds that astound, however -- the animation of Tarzan himself is another important piece of the film. In live-action movies, Tarzan does little but swing on vines and walk on his knuckles, but Disney's Tarzan moves effortlessly through the jungle canopy. He swings, balances, and even surfs among the treetops, moving with the grace and agility of someone clearly raised in that environment. It's an invigorating way of depicting the hero, and, perhaps, proves Burroughs correct.
The story, as usual, is changed somewhat from the original source material. The film opens with a shipwreck, the only survivors of which are a young couple and their infant son. They create a treetop shelter -- a home, really -- out of ship debris and wood from the jungle. They live in relative comfort until the leopard Sabor shows up and kills the couple. A female gorilla -- who had recently lost her own infant to Sabor -- hears the attacks and manages to save the human baby from the leopard. Over the protestations of the pack leader, Kerchak, Kala adopts the boy.
Tarzan -- named by his new mother -- is never accepted by Kerchak as he grows up, and after 18 years he is beginning to notice that he's significantly different from his adopted family. As if on cue, an English professor, Archimedes Porter, arrives with a small expeditionary crew, including his effervescent daughter Jane and the selfish explorer Clayton. Tarzan must deal with the newcomers and protect his gorilla family, even as he falls in love with Jane and feels pressure to return to human society.
As noted above, the songs in the film were composed and performed by Phil Collins. They, frankly, all sound about the same -- standard Collins fare -- except for one. "Trashin' the Camp" is a fun, bouncy, sound-effects-laden tune created as Tarzan's young gorilla friends explore the myriad aural possibilities they discover at the Porters' camp. TV and film composer Mark Mancina did the score. Nothing groundbreaking on the part of either composer, but then, the music was supposed to take a back seat in this film.
Disney scaled back the voice talent a bit for this film, as compared to their recent features. The biggest names are actresses Glenn Close as Kala and Minnie Driver as Jane. Driver is outstanding as the intelligent but somewhat distracted love interest, who finds herself caught breathless and swept away -- to her own surprise -- by this primitive ape-man. Also providing voices are comedienne Rosie O'Donnell as Tarzan's best friend Terk; overweight sitcom actor Wayne Knight as their friend, the hypochondriac elephant Tantor; Lance Henriksen (Millennium, Aliens) as Kerchak; veteran British actor Sir Nigel Hawthorne as Professor Porter; and Brian Blessed (the voice of Boss Nass) as Clayton. The talent does a fine job overall.
Collins won an Academy Award for Best Music, Song ("You'll Be in My Heart"); although I can't agree it was better than Randy Newman's tear-jerker "When She Loved Me" from Toy Story 2, it probably did deserve to beat "Blame Canada." "You'll Be in My Heart" also won the Golden Globe and was nominated for a Grammy; the score won a Grammy for Mancina. Tarzan didn't fare well at the Annie Awards, at which Mulan had cleaned up the previous year; Warner Bros.' The Iron Giant took home nearly every award for which it was nominated.
In 2006, Tarzan premiered as Disney's fourth Broadway musical, with new songs (now sung by the characters) from Phil Collins and extensive "flying" apparati to allow the characters to move through the jungle set. It is, perhaps, ironic that the feature the film was most noted for -- its ability to show Tarzan freed from the constraints of live-action portrayal -- is almost eliminated in the stage version. The wild success of the Tarzan Rocks! stage show at Disney's Animal Kingdom, however, may have contributed to the decision to take it to Broadway.
Tarzan, along with its impressive, innovative animation, also continued Disney's attempts to do something different, which had begun with Mulan. Here, they took the changes even further, relegating the music mostly to the background, departing from traditional movie-musical conventions. And in the year 2000, they would take the role of music in their features in two completely opposite directions...
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.