Written by: Edgar Rice Burroughs (novel), Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker & Noni White
Tarzan has a fair bit in common with Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in that it’s one of those stories based off of a world-famous work of fiction in and of itself and not just some fairy tale- the Disney version is therefore NOT the most-famous, most-iconic version of said thing. For this reason, there was a fair bit of pressure on the film to deliver in a manner that’s somewhat accurate and honors the original. That Hollywood remakes a Tarzan feature of some sort nearly once a decade doesn’t help the pressure.
They did a really solid job with this one, going full-bore with the animation (inventing the “Deep Canvas” technique to make CGI backgrounds look like paintings- something they’d never actually improve upon from this point) and throwing some great scenery into things. With Pocahontas they focused on the same stuff, and they only improved it since, and this time partnered it with a NON-shitty film! Also, animation is oddly a VERY solid way to show Tarzan’s movements- most movies & TV shows (I remember some syndicated “adventure of the day” type one) just have to take some ripped dude and have him swing awkwardly about like Spider-Man, and do his “Tarzan Call”, but this one could have the hero SURF through the trees at top speeds! There’s less to worry about flouncy actors with great physical beauty but no acting ability (see: Bo Derek- one attractive lady, but never possessing of any real talent), since you can hire good actors and just DRAW ’em really pretty!
It’s a solid adventure film, has some great-looking animals (another key- Animal Actors as a rule kind of stink, and OH MY GOD do CGI animals usually look horrible- I think it took until 2017 for people to design them in a way that didn’t look like total garbage), and it’s actually really funny with the leads- there’s chemistry there that a lot of Disney romances lack, especially since it’s sorta Love-At-First-Sight in a RATIONAL sense (ie. Jane is the first woman Tarzan’s ever seen), and they still slowly develop the relationship instead of being madly in love instantly.
There’s a handful of flaws in that the villains are fairly uninteresting (one’s the only mute animal in Africa, and the other’s your generic Great White Hunter).
Tarzan is one of the most famous characters in all of fiction when you get right down to it, a household name in every sense of the term. So you can imagine the difficulty in creating an iconic representative of the character for a cartoon a hundred years after the guy was created. But Disney did a solid job- turning him into a dreadlocked, calm bad-ass with a sense of wonderment and desperate belonging with these “Strangers Like Me”. Like I said, animation is actually the perfect medium to show a guy hauling ass through jungles at top speed, using vines and stuff to swing on. Most live-action versions of this just look goofy. Here, he had an apelike stance, a human’s curious gaze, and a LOT of action in his movements.
About the Performer: I have no idea who on Earth Tony Goldwyn is. I guess he was the bad guy in Ghost, and an HIV-suffering guy on Designing Women (which was one of the first times a major show tackled that). He was also on a Law & Order for a while, and does a lot of Broadway work, as well as directing (plenty of romantic comedies).
Terk is a rather tolerable Animal Sidekick, played by Rosie O’Donnell, who is a performer of questionable talents. But in this, she was okay. Not SUPER funny or anything, but these characters can often cross the line into “Hunchback‘s Gargoyles” levels of “get these damn things off the screen”, so she was okay. I still can’t figure out why an adult gorilla still only looks like a teenager- it’s well-established that she’s basically Tarzan’s age.
About the Performer: This was Rosie O’Donnell near the peak of her fame. Now, I have mixed feelings about Rosie- her talk show was pretty funny for its time, and she had kind of a funny deadpan humor about her that I appreciated. But she sorta developed into an extremely weird, obsessive hyper-crank who whined about everything, but was herself a GIANT HYPOCRITE- the worst kind of moral crusader, really.
Honestly, she developed into being one of my least-favorite celebrities- a tiresome moralizer who herself was just as guilty of the very shit she’d accuse others of spouting. She would decry someone for saying something that could be construed as making fun of gay people, but then turn around and mimic the way Chinese people talk, and be completely unapologetic about it.
Tantor is your classic Cowardly Elephant, being afraid of everybody and everything, which of course serves to make the rare moments where he Elephants up and saves his friends all the more impressive. The cartoon series had a good moment where he whupped on some gigantic elephant who was threatening people (it was established that Tarzan could NEVER hurt such a large animal). Like many side-characters in Disney, he was played by Jim Cummings.
Jane had a really good design in this, and was played PERFECTLY- she was your classic Damsel in Distress, and had this great, funny nervous energy. That scene where Tarzan is taking her shoes off and touching her and she’s all giddilly trying to get him off her is totally adorable (mostly because it’s innocent and he’s not actually being a pervert), and is a really tricky thing to pull off. Overall, she develops some survival skills and Jungle Know-How to go along with some fighting ability (I mean, she’s attacked by Leopards CONSTANTLY).
About the Performer: Minnie Driver’s one of those weird actresses who has been in tons of stuff, but was never really that famous. I think her actual peak of fame was when she was Matt Damon’s first celebrity girlfriend right when he & Ben Affleck hit it big from Good Will Hunting (in which she also starred)- the relationship famously ended when Matt announced that he was single on Oprah… which came as a surprise to Minnie (yikes). So few really care that much about her, and she’s not really that famous… but she’s still working. A lot, actually.
Mostly, she just appears in minor stuff, or as a character actress. She’s well-respected, though- often being nominated for awards. A recent thing was the FX show The Riches, though that was a very minor deal. She’s apparently playing a wheelchair-bound woman in an ABC sitcom, which was complete news to me. She works in 1-2 things a year, all minor.
Kerchak is the distrusting father-figure of Tarzan, and generally is pretty hard on the poor hero of the story, refusing to believe that he’s worth anything. He even rejects Tarzan for saving his life from Sabor- embarrassed by his failure! This puts him in stark contrast, to even-tempered, wise Mufasa, but still makes him an interesting character. In this case, it’s the flaws that make him- he’s not a BAD GUY, and he believes what he’s doing is the right path (Tarzan DOES screw up a fair bit at first), but his ignorance of Tarzan’s strengths cost him a good relationship, which he comes to regret in his final moments, when he takes a bullet meant for the man who truly IS Kerchak’s son. So basically, he’s like King Triton, but learns his lesson too late.
About the Performer: Lance Henriksen hasn’t been in much stuff that I’ve seen, but I vaguely recognize the name. haha- he was apparently James Cameron’s first choice to play The Terminator! Imagine a world where THAT had happened. Oh, he’s Bishop from Aliens– I know that one!
Sabor the leopard was a well-designed freaky predator in Tarzan, showing up to kill Tarzan’s parents, Kala’s infant AND attack the band when Tarzan was into adulthood, making her (yes, it’s a lady leopard) one SUPER long-lived leopard. The design was impressive considering the film came only a few years after The Lion King, meaning they had to do something different with this jungle cat- making it even MORE inhuman than a regular cat, including turning it into a non-speaking (why ARE leopards mute in a land where gorillas & elephants can talk?) psychotically-aggressive creature with an alien head-shape! It’s quite odd to see her in a movie full of natural-ish animal designs, since she has very little spots, sabre-teeth and a cougar’s yowl.
Holy HELL does Disney have a grudge against hunters- sure it might come from the fact that an alarming number of Disney films are based around animals that talk and have relationships and stuff, but MAN, I think Walt Disney must have been shot by a dangerous hillbilly as a kid, because his films are LITTERED with heartless, monstrous hunters. You’ve got “Man is in the forest” from Bambi, whomever Bambi’d Tod’s mom in The Fox & the Hound, the three hillbillies in The Princess and the Frog, Cruella de Vil (kinda), McLeach from The Rescuers Down Under, and ol’ John Clayton here. Clayton’s an… OKAY villain, I guess, but lacks the menace or grandeur of most Disney foes, and never quite gets scary enough. This is odd, because BRIAN BLESSED (you must always use all caps, as TV Tropes tells us) is the hammiest of hammy actors, yet the only thing I remember of this guy is his death scene- accidentally hanging himself and ending up being seen by a silhouetted shadow while his legs sway in the breeze.
About the Performer: BRIAN BLESSED is infamous for giving over-the-top, boisterous performances, chewing the scenery in every role. His hamminess is so intense that even roles like Augustus Caesar, a famously stoic, intellectual man, was portrayed as a bellowing, chortling sort (“IS THERE A SINGLE MAN IN ROME WHO HAS NOT SLEPT WITH MY DAUGHTER?!?”). He’s been performing since the 1960s, playing roles in I, Claudius, Return to Treasure Island, and more. He was the original Old Deuteronomy and Bustopher Jones in the 1981 West End version of Cats, and frequently appears in Shakespearean works, too. To nerds, BRIAN BLESSED is probably most iconic for playing Prince Vultan in the schlocky masterpiece Flash Gordon. To Brits, he’s notable for his other work, plus being in Blackadder.
BRIAN BLESSED’S real-life story includes things like sparring with the Dalai Lama in boxing, hitting 28,200 feet on Mount Everest while in his 50s, surviving a plane crash, and being the oldest man to reach the North Magnetic Pole on foot. In 2011, the student union of the University of York named their new study area the “BRIAN BLESSED Centre for Quiet Study”. In 2015, he collapsed during a performance of King Lear, but returned to the stage 20 minutes later to complete the play.
Reception & Cultural Impact:
Researching it, I’m always stunned at the box office- this movie did REALLY well, breaking the post-Pocahontas “Slump” and earning over $450 million worldwide. Like, it was a MUCH bigger hit that the prior three movies! Unfortunately, it would be the only movie of its era to do that well. Atlantis & Treasure Planet were much weaker films on artistic & writing-based levels, and they also appealed to far fewer people, resulting in another Disney Slump that nearly killed theatrical traditional animation. Thus, it is generally accepted that Tarzan is the last of the Disney Renaissance.
Phil Collins’s soundtrack was actually very good and got a lot of airplay- Stranger Like Me and You’ll Be In My Heart were very solid hits for the studio, and are still well-thought-of these days. Matt Stone & Trey Parker, in a great display of hilarious pettiness, took potshots at Collins, owing to this movie beating South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut at the Academy Awards for Best Song- going as low as to bring up his personal failings (*News Reporter Casually Mentioning* “By the way, Phil Collins once divorced his wife by fax, then married a twenty-seven year old”).
The movie was so successful that it, like Hercules, got its own TV show, which was actually pretty solid. Mainly because of QUEEN LA, who looked like Storm from the X-Men, but in a fur bikini. Also she was an evil sorceress who had a bunch of Leopard Men minions. She was rad.
The impact on the Parks hasn’t been enormous, but controversially the former Swiss Family Treehouse in Disneyland is now Tarzan-themed instead of based around The Swiss Family Robinson, which most of Disney’s fanbase has likely never even heard of, much less seen.
Disney Parks fans are NOT generally known for their love of A) Change, or B) New IPs taking over old IPs in the Parks.