Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story of a man who was stranded in a world not his own, who must become like the non-human species around him in order to survive and who must eventually lead them to victory was one of Disney’s biggest failures. But enough about John Carter, let’s talk about Tarzan.
Unlike the Taylor Kitsch starring mega-flop, Tarzan was actually successful, opening at number 1 and outgrossing Mulan and Hercules. It was the last big success of Disney’s incredibly lucrative run in the 90’s. Arguably, as well, it was their last truly great film until The Princess and the Frog, but that is a controversial statement to people who love Lilo and Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove, and also to the wrong-headed people out there who don’t really rate Princess (it’s their best film in the 21st Century, but more on that in December). I’ll have to wait to revisit Emperor’s and watch Lilo for the first time, but Tarzan remains a triumph nonetheless, a dark, exciting, dramatic and emotional drama that features the best integration of traditional and CG animation that the studio had yet achieved. Also, it has freakin’ Phil Collins.
I’ve spoken a lot about openings over the course of the Disney 52 project, and it’s because I think they are incredibly important in setting the tone and dragging the audience into the world of the film. ‘The Circle of Life’ shows the wondrous wildlife of the Serengheti in all its animated glory, while the introduction to Bambi introduces the hero in regal, formal framing, thus creating a sense of grandeur. The opening to Tarzan is an impressive whirlwind of scene-setting as it depicts two families – one ape, one human – as they build homes, look after their children and subsequently get attacked by a hungry leopard. The worlds of ape and human then collide as a distraught primate mother finds an infant homo sapiens sapiens and rescues him from said voracious big cat. The whole sequence is kinetic, exciting and charged with emotion – who wouldn’t get upset at the death of some parents and a baby gorilla? It shows early on that the film makers won’t shy away from drama and violence, but will keep family relationships at the centre of the story. Plus, there are healthy doses of Phil Collins.
This family relationship runs throughout the film, forming a core around which everything else is built. Any event in the film works or doesn’t based on how it ties to the core of Tarzan’s relationship with his adopted gorilla mother and the fierce silverback Kerchak. Therefore a crucial fight between the ape-man and the leopard who killed his parents is made more gripping as he saves the unapproving patriarch’s life in the process; the young Tarzan’s desire to fit in is largely based on his need for validation from the gorilla who refuses to be his father. The film is structurally ambitious in this sense: it doesn’t introduce the villain or the romantic interest until a third of the film has passed, suggesting that the crucial dynamic of the narrative is not romantic love or fear of outsiders, but familial love. The decision Tarzan has to make at the end of the film is rooted in his love of family, the tension of Clayton’s violent invasion is created by the fear of what might happen to his mother and friends. Many of Phil Collins’ excellent songs explore this theme, too.
Coupled with this beautiful relationship is a sense of wonder that makes Tarzan a truly remarkable film. What makes it stand out is that the wonder of the film works in two directions once Jane has arrived on the scene. The comically prim adventurer and gorilla fan is the outsider’s view into the world of Tarzan, a figure so obviously British and unsuited for jungle life that she makes an ideal fish out water, constantly surprised and in awe of everything she experiences. As she gasps at trees full of technicolour birds, the audience do too. However, as they introduce Tarzan to the sights of the civilised world, this excitement at the new and different is reciprocated as the old light projector flickers between sumo wrestlers, cityscapes and Edwardian transportation. The hero’s eyes widen as new countries and ways of life are revealed to him. Tarzan is a frequently wondrous film, making it all the more memorable. It makes sense, then, that they hired the wondrous Phil Collins to write the songs.
Bringing all of this to life is Disney’s best animation since The Lion King. Clear, thick lines and bold colours make the characters expressive and the landscapes lush and teeming with life. By the late 90s, CG had improved to the extent that it blends almost seamlessly with the traditional techniques (Tarzan was released the same year as Toy Story 2). The great moves forward in the technology enable the animators to achieve the potential they’d been hinting at from as early as The Great Mouse Detective: here, the CG means that there is much greater movement allowed for the theoretical ‘camera’. Where cel animation often required one static background for the superimposed characters to move across, computer animation allows for the backgrounds to move with the characters, so the result is a constantly energetic film where Tarzan can ‘surf’ along tree branches and swing through canopies with great alacrity. Much of the joy of the film lies in the sequences where the dreadlocked hero traverses the jungle, taking the camera along for the ride. Especially when accompanied by Phil Collins.
So Tarzan is a success all round, managing to be as exciting as Mulan, as heartfelt as Beauty and the Beast and as awesome as The Lion King. That sounds like high praise for a film which isn’t normally ranked as one of the bona-fide classics, but then, this has Phil Collins.
One final thought: maybe John Carter would have been better and more successful if it featured Phil Collins songs.