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The Media Man Reviews: Tarzan


Title care to my review of Tarzan

We all remember the Disney Renaissance, don't we? I guarantee a majority of Disney fans alive today grew up during this period and even became Disney fans themselves because of it. I was certainly one of those fans.


Starting with The Little Mermaid in 1989, the Disney Renaissance saw Disney release a consecutive streak of critically acclaimed and successful movies with some such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King remaining as among the most beloved Disney films of all time. The second half isn't quite as popular but still has plenty of fan-favourites such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan. The period came to an end in 1999 with the subject of this week's post: the time when Disney did their own version of the classic jungle man story Tarzan.


Written by Edgar Rice Burroughs for a magazine in 1912 and written in novel format in 1914, Tarzan has become one of the biggest icons in pop culture history with numerous adaptations made of the book throughout the years and numerous actors having portrayed the wild man onscreen in some form. He remains one of the defining images of the "jungle warrior" character and is easily Edgar Rice Burroughs's most famous work. As you can see, Disney decided to do their own version of Tarzan and it was the film that concluded their Renaissance period. While it doesn't have quite as much love as other Renaissance movies, Tarzan does have its fans and is especially fondly remembered for its legendary soundtrack.


So does Tarzan end the Disney Renaissance on a high note? Or should we feed it to Sabor the Leopard? Let's swing into the jungle and find out...


Section 1: The Story


Important Disclaimer: I have NOT read the original book so no comparisons will be made. This review is based entirely on my thoughts of the movie as a movie, not an adaptation.


The story sees a young boy named Tarzan who winds up shipwrecked after his family's boat catches fire and they try to survive in the harsh jungles of Africa. His parents are ultimately slaughtered by Sabor the Leopard and Tarzan winds up in the care of a kind gorilla named Kala who has recently lost her baby to the same leopard. Tarzan grows up in the gorilla troop an outcast due to being different but with his determination and hard work, he may prove himself a worthy gorilla in the end. That all gets tested further when more humans visit Africa and he takes an interest in them...


As I haven't read the book, I have no idea how faithful an adaptation of Tarzan this is. I am aware of some changes like Clayton not being related to Tarzan in the movie like in the book and Terk is not female like she is here but aside from that, I'm utterly clueless so as an adaptation, I can't judge. As a movie on its own however? It's VERY good!


Tarzan is ultimately a story about family and how family isn't defined by true relations, but by the relationships you forge with the people that you love. Tarzan is a human but is adopted by Kala, a gorilla, and despite them being entirely different species their bond becomes so great that they're just like any other family out there. The theme of family forms the heart of this story and it makes for quite a touching viewing experience. With the theme of family present, it naturally features a lot of the hardships of family, namely trying to fit in and be considered part of a family despite not actually being a part of it. I can only imagine this is what it must feel like for most adopted children out there. Tarzan has trouble fitting in with his fellow gorilla due to how different he is and Kerchak, who is essentially the closest thing he has to a father now, wants nothing to do with him. That is so relatable on so many levels for many and I mean MANY people have been through that in their lives. Ultimately, it's Tarzan's sheer determination to prove himself a part of the troop that wins his fellow gorillas over in the end, which I can tell you feels very satisfying to watch every time I put this movie on.


The first half of the movie focuses on Tarzan adapting to jungle life and growing up with his fellow gorilla and ultimately climaxes with him saving the troop from Sabor the Leopard. Considering Sabor killed Kala's baby and Tarzan's parents, that was the most appropriate end for the leopard. After that, the second half focuses on Tarzan discovering humans and even taking a deep interest in the woman among them. Many viewers feel that the human part is the less interesting part of the movie and I know MANY of them feel that Sabor should've been the overall antagonist of Tarzan instead of making it some generic greedy hunter. I can't deny that yes, they do have a point there and Sabor would've been a much stronger antagonist but she was taken out far too early and considering Tarzan never even learns that she's the one that killed his real parents, it's a missed opportunity for him to get some real catharsis for putting an end to her. But I still enjoy the human portion as well. It's actually adorable watching Tarzan become this wide-eyed kid taking a deep interest in a world he hasn't seen before due to growing up in the jungle and considering these humans are the first humans he's ever seen, of course he'll be fascinated by them. So yeah, I don't mind the human plot so much.


The movie itself feels well-paced overall with no scenes overstaying their welcome and every scene feels like it's at the right pace overall (even though the Trashin' the Camp sequence is pretty much a Big-Lipped Alligator moment). The best scenes for me are whenever there's a quiet moment. This movie REALLY knows how to use them well. Some scenes have little to no dialogue at all such as Kala discovering Tarzan and escaping from Sabor, Kala showing Tarzan where he came from or when Tarzan and Jane place their hands together and it's all the more effective as a result for the animation gets to tell us so much without the characters needing to say a lot, if anything at all. It's all so very atmospheric as a result and it's wonderful to watch.


The film also excels at the action scenes too. They feel both intense and exciting to watch with the writers, storyboard artists and animators taking advantage of the jungle setting to stage some truly action-packed scenes. Every time there's an action scene, the film gets even more engaging to watch and I guarantee you can't take your eyes away as you watch them. It doesn't shy away from the odd graphic moment here or there from characters visibly bleeding or ESPECIALLY Clayton's death. Disney in this day and age wouldn't DARE try anything like that again, let me tell you!


If there's anything to criticize about the story at all, it'd probably be two things: tone and predictability. I personally think the tone is balanced enough but I can easily understand if people have an issue with it. It does kinda fall into the obvious trap that it's a family-friendly movie so they need to put in some comedy and "kid-friendly" stuff to make it more appealing to families. A lot of the comedy is really funny to both kids and adults but some jokes might seem more kiddie than others. The Thrashin' the Camp sequence especially feels like it's just there to make the kids laugh as it otherwise does nothing else for the story and is at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie. To put into perspective, we have a scene of gorillas being goofy and wrecking a campsite in the same movie where we see the dead bodies of Tarzan's parents and the main villain is HANGED to death! Don't exactly go hand-in-hand do they? XD


As for predictability, I say that in the sense the story is one of those that I imagine many can easily predict. Tarzan's character arc is pretty straight forward, Clayton is very obviously the villain and the film doesn't exactly do a lot of creative and unexpected twists on the formula of its story. I still find the story to be well-written and engaging but I can understand that some viewers out there might find the story too familiar for their tastes and not get into it as much as I did. I even agree that rather than Clayton, they should've made Sabor the overall villain of the movie and not done the whole "greedy villain" plot as that took away the film's potential to be truly spectacular in the end.


Still, Tarzan has very few points to complain about and the story stands as one of the finest among the Renaissance era. It's exciting, intense, heart-warming and very funny to watch and it never fails to engage or entertain me whenever I watch it.


Section 2: The Characters


Tarzan for me has one of the strongest casts of characters in a Disney movie with everyone serving their roles well and being well-written, charming or memorable for a variety of reasons.


Let's start with the main man himself, Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn with Brian Blessed doing the iconic yell). Tarzan starts off as an orphaned baby who is adopted by Kala and raised among the gorilla troop. As expected, he's pretty much an outcast, ostracized by his fellow gorillas with Kerchak especially treating him as something he'd gladly throw away if he could. Tarzan has severe insecurities about himself for how different he looks from the others and yet so many similarities as Kala points out. He's driven to prove himself to his troop and a battle with Sabor that ends with him winning does finally get him the acceptance and respect he's been craving his whole childhood. His experiences in the jungle shaped him into a total badass who really knows how to fight, even against fierce animals like leopards, but outside of battle he's a really sweet guy who can be pretty endearing at times with his childlike curiosity which is only amplified when he sees the human group for the first time. Tarzan's arc maybe as straight forward as it gets, but the character himself is still very charming and I think he carries the movie quite well in spite of how familiar it may be.


There's also his surrogate mother, Kala (voiced by Glenn Close). Kala is a total sweetheart and the kind of mother every child should have. Not only is she very supportive of Tarzan and more open-minded than the rest of her troop, but she proves to be someone you don't trifle with for she goes through a lot to keep Tarzan safe from Sabor even if she's not much of a fighter. Kala forms much of the story's heart and is a great supporting character in Tarzan's story. Definitely one of the best animated mothers out there.


There's also Terk (voiced by Rosie O'Donnell) and Tantor (voiced by Wayne Knight). They're essentially the comic reliefs of the movie and don't have that much development going for them. Tantor especially just starts off as this elephant that's nervous about everything and then come the climax, he just suddenly flips a switch and now he's a badass whose willing to dive into water to help Tarzan. That's not Tantor undergoing a big change or an arc about needing to be braver, it's literally just the writers snapping their fingers and now he's not a coward anymore. They really could've handled that a lot better in my eyes instead of needing to hurry it along so they can get him to participate in the climax. At least he and Terk can be funny to watch at times and their actors are as entertaining as ever.


And then we get one of my favourite characters in the movie, Kerchak (voiced by Lance Henrikson). He's the stern but caring leader of the gorilla troop who values their safety above anything else. While he is harsh towards Tarzan, it's easy to understand why he's like this. He's a grieving father who likely hasn't gotten over the death of his and Kala's child at the jaws of Sabor and now his own wife comes in with not only a new child, but one that's NOT their kind? I can't begin to imagine how hard a time he must have processing this and he likely resents Tarzan for "replacing the one they lost" in a sense despite Kala's protestations to the contrary. If you view Kerchak this way, he becomes a more complex and interesting character that way and an example of how to do the disapproving dad trope correctly. He's not mean for the sake of being mean and he's also not entirely unreasonable. He may not like Tarzan but it was HIS decision in the end to let him stay and he even looked as if he was about to thank Tarzan for defeating Sabor and saving his life in the end. What ultimately wins him over is when Tarzan comes back to save the troop in the climax and with his dying breath, he acknowledges Tarzan as his son and deems him the new leader of the troop. Kerchak's just a fascinating study and I always enjoy watching him, as well as hold him as an example to follow when writing these stern, disapproving leader figures.


And then we get the human group with the most important of the bunch being of course, Jane Porter (voiced by Minnie Driver). Jane is the best example of how to do a damsel-in-distress correctly. She's not some helpless woman who's a load and screams a lot because she's a woman, she's only a damsel-in-distress because she's in an unfamiliar environment so naturally she's going to need saving a lot. Anyone would if they were in her boots. And yet Jane proves to be capable in other ways due to being animal savvy and is easily Tarzan's best link to the human world as she educates him on the world he's missed out on due to growing up in the jungles of Africa. In return, Tarzan educates her more on his world which proves to be helpful in the climax of the movie. The relationship that develops between Tarzan and Jane is adorable and very well handled with the two sharing so much with each other and helping each other grow as a result. And I must confess that Jane is one of my biggest Disney crushes too. I really don't blame Tarzan for falling for her with how godforsaken cute she is...


There's her father Archimedes Q. Porter (voiced by Nigel Hawthorne) who is just the eccentric explorer who also takes a big interest in Tarzan because of his ape-like behaviour. He's not got much going for him aside from being Jane's dad but he's fine enough as he is.


And then we have the villain of our movie, Clayton (voiced by BRIAN BLESSED). Clayton is your typical greedy poacher who wants to profit off of the gorillas. After all, £300 sterling a head is quite a hefty price to catch is it not? While he's so obviously the villain that I wonder how Jane and Professor Porter couldn't tell he's obviously evil, I do like how cunning and duplicitous he can be with his smooth way of talking and how he cons Tarzan into showing where the gorillas are located so he can snatch them all. He also proves to be a tough foe for Tarzan to face as he too is skilled in battle and also has the superior weaponry so Tarzan can't handle him the way he handles other animals. Also you've got Brain Blessed voicing him, that's always fun. As is, he's still pretty one-dimensional and should've been replaced with Sabor as the main villain as Sabor has a more personal connection to the cast and would've been more interesting a foe than just "greedy poacher". His death's pretty memorable though...for how shocking and surprisingly graphic it was. Seriously, when's the last time you saw somebody get hanged in a Disney movie?


The characters are a strong bunch that carry this movie well and give us plenty to remember about the movie. I guarantee you'll walk away with a favourite or two when you've finished watching them in action...


Section 3: The Animation


It's a movie from the Disney Renaissance. Is it any surprise the animation is godforsaken gorgeous? Of course not! But that won't stop me talking about how good it is.


The animation has the usual Disney art-style that we know and love and it gives everything a great look here from the humans to the animals in the jungle. The designs are cartoon-y but still true to the animals we see be it the gorillas or the elephants and much more and the way they move is a little stylized but still keeping in with how these animals would actually move. One particularly great example is the animation on Sabor the Leopard. I LOVE the way they animated her, making her move and act like an actual savage predator with a less cartoonish, stylized look to emphasis her fearsome nature as a killer cat that could claw your skin off in seconds (also they designed her accurately to a leopard with the yellow fur, the rosette like spots and her bulky muscle structure). All her movements emphasis speed and savagery, which is true to how an actual leopard would move in real life and it's just saw awesome to watch her in action. And while we're talking about animal movements, the gorillas are equally as realistic with their knuckle-drag walking stands and even the way they pound their chests is drawn and animated closed to real life than most depictions of gorillas in animation. We even get a moment where Kerchak glares at Jane and doesn't display any aggressive behaviour until she looks him in the eye. Again, this is like real life where eye-contact is seen as a challenge by gorillas. The animators really went all out on animating these animals and capturing their natural movements while also anthropomorphising them a little to fit the Disney art-style and make them more expressive to the audience.


As for the humans, Tarzan is often seen as a feat of animation due to him being the first Disney character to be animated with realistic muscle anatomy. They even consulted a professor of anatomy just so they could animate Tarzan's muscular body right. That's how much they cared about getting it right and it's great for Tarzan looks like this fit, muscle bound warrior who isn't too overly beefy and can easily pass off as someone who's truly strong and agile. Though one has to wonder how he's been living in the jungle all his life and yet ISN'T covered in hair. You'd think he'd have grown a beard at least. XD Anyway, Jane, Professor Porter and Clayton have great designs too. While they may not look quite as realistic as Tarzan, they still look good and their designs are each visually distinct from one another with the beautiful Jane, the short and elderly Professor Porter and the muscular, devious Clayton. Their designs somehow just fit their characters so well and look great when in motion with a lot of character displayed in their movements (Clayton especially is quite a hammy guy in terms of his character animation).


As for the gorillas a lot of them might look the same to some people with only a few having more distinct appearances to set them apart, mainly Kala, Kerchak and Terk. They do give various shades of colours to the gorillas like black, brown or blue but that's about it so when it comes to the troop all being together, they do kinda blend in together. But they do give the gorillas different shaped heads and faces to make them look less identical and some look bigger and more muscular than others so they did put in the effort so make sure they don't all look like clones or something. I am a little curious on the colouring choices of the elephants though. Last time I looked, elephants aren't red.


The world itself looks absolutely gorgeous too. The jungle backgrounds are BURSTING with colour and detail everywhere and the lighting and shadow effects everywhere add further dimensions to the world to make it look more convincing and like this is a real environment everybody is living in. You see all sorts of environments in this jungle like huge grasses both green and yellow, hordes of trees that obscure much of the light. flowing rivers, giant hilltops, clifftops and so much more. The lush colour palette adds a true air of beauty to the jungle and makes you side with Tarzan as he fights to protect his home. After all, who wants to see such beauty tampered with? And while I'm talking about colours, the colour palatte is used beautifully to convey all kinds of moods, especially during the "You'll Be In My Heart" segment with the gorilla troop going to sleep for the night. It's all shot at night with soothing blue colours to symbolize the peaceful nature of the troop at rest and how Tarzan has been accepted into this peaceful new world he's found himself in. Also thanks to the Deep Canvas programme they developed for this movie, they were able to create 3-D environments that still had a painterly look to them to make them blend in well with the hand-drawn animations and allow for great movement and fluidity during the action scenes.


The animation is a sight to behold from the character designs and colours, that much is obvious. But it TRULY shines during the action and musical scenes. The animators take advantage so much of the jungle setting their movie is in and make all the action scenes a thrill ride from beginning to end with all kinds of chaos going on. You get elephant stampedes, a battle with Sabor up in the trees, a baboon army chasing Jane down, Tarzan showing off his surfing skills across the trees and so much more! All this and the fact they have great camera angels that can follow the action only makes them look that much more impressive overall. I can only imagine how much fun the animators were having when working on these scenes and just going all out on them. They even manage to incorporate the odd bit of humour into them too like when Tarzan catches Jane on a log and ends up doing the splits, much to his chagrin. Making action scenes that are exciting, intense AND funny is no easy task but they pull it off here and it's great.


The animation is a highlight of the movie and some of the best to ever come out of the Walt Disney Company. It's gorgeous to look at, exciting to watch and impressive to behold for the incredible work put into it. Truly some outstanding work that should be heralded as some of the best animation ever produced in a feature length film...


Section 4: The Songs


It's a soundtrack composed and performed by Phil Collins. Do I NEED to explain why it's awesome? No? Tough, I'm doing it anyway!


It's a common joke amongst Disney fans that "Phil Collins didn't need to go so hard on the soundtrack" but thank god he did anyway for he gave us one of the best soundtracks in Disney history! His musical accompaniments and highly quotable lyrics make every song a total masterpiece to listen to and once he starts singing the film gets infinitely more enjoyable as a result.


The first song is "Two Worlds" which basically acts a prologue in musical form that tells the story of what's happening onscreen as Tarzan and the gorilla's worlds are set up to eventually intertwine. It's a fantastic opener that is accompanied beautifully by the visuals mostly matching the lyrics onscreen and manages to convey so much at once with just this one song. It's really catchy and fun to sing along to and it sets up the movie while sucking us in straight away. I mean if this is the opening song, imagine how the rest will sound!


Next is "Son of Man" which is another song that sort of acts like a mini story in and of itself as it narrates Tarzan's journey from boy to man. The song is accompanied by visuals of Tarzan going throughout childhood to prove himself the best ape ever with some epic fails and epic achievements as he grows up over time. The visuals to this song are some of the best from the movie and the song itself is truly infectious with great accompanying instruments and memorable lyrics to sing along to.


And then we have "Strangers Like Me" which narrates Tarzan's ever-growing curiosity about the humans he's met, there aforementioned strangers like him. The song is written from Tarzan's point of view and we see in the accompanying visuals as Jane teaches him about the human world while he also teaches her more about his world. The song sells the inquisitive nature of Tarzan and the beauty of his world as he shows it to Jane. My particular favourite part is when he "sings" to Jane "take my hand, there's a world I need to knooooooooooow" as the two swing together. That part's just wonderful. ^^


And of course, there's the breakout song that won Phil Collins the Academy Award for Best Original Song, "You'll Be In My Heart". We actually hear two versions of the song. The first time is during the scene where the gorillas got to sleep for the night in which the song is delivered in a softer, slower pace and tone, more like a lullaby as the gorillas and Tarzan settle down to sleep. The second time is during the end credits where it's not done like a lullaby but is nonetheless still enjoyable. The song is very romantic with its lyrics and can fit a variety of relationships. It could be about a parent and their child, it could be about two friends or it could be about two romantic partners. It also ties well onto the movie with it essentially being about Kala and Tarzan and how they feel towards each other and some lines such as "why can't they understand the way we feel" or "don't listen to them, cause what do they know?" pretty much referring to Kerchak and the other gorillas being more sceptical about their relationship. The song I feel has become only more relevant in recent years and I can see it appealing to so many groups out there with its theme of acceptance and how you'll be in someone's heart always.


The songs are the highlight of the movie and nothing can change my mind on that. Phil Collins went all out on this soundtrack and god bless him for it. He took what was already a good movie and only made it even greater with his musical accompaniments. This is not just the highlight of his career, but one of the highlights of Disney's too with such great songs produced for the film...


Conclusion


Tarzan more than ended the Disney Renaissance on a massive high note in my eyes and is easily among the more underrated films of that era. The story is engaging and touching, the animation is incredible, the characters are memorable and likeable and the soundtrack absolutely slaps HARD! If you're a Disney fan like I am, you owe it to yourself to watch this movie if you haven't already. It's truly among the greats of the company's legendary legacy and is a great version of the legendary Tarzan story for everyone to enjoy. This is a movie I'll happily swing into ANY time of the year...


And that's it for this review. I hope you enjoyed it and I invite you to share your thoughts down below as always. Do you like this movie? Is it not for you? Don't hesitate to tell me. Next week I'll be saying farewell to Ash Ketchum in my own special way while also celebrating Pokémon Day by writing a retrospective of his entire time on the show. Don't miss it! :D


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