Disney Classics #37: Tarzan

I think this is the first Disney movie since The Little Mermaid that I didn’t see in the cinema when it came out, because I was fourteen. I think at that age, I was kinda insecure about doing things that I considered “childish” and so I stopped going to see Disney movies, which is a shame, because I didn’t see it until I was a lot older, and missed out on a few years of Disney movies.

I’m a fan of the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books, even if they are rather dated in some ways, but the central premise, of a man raised by apes to become a vine swinging, tree climbing wild man is still one that holds interest for audiences and there have been many versions over the years. In 1999, Disney took their run at the character, and the result is a movie that sticks with the central idea and themes of the story, but updates some of the more old fashioned aspects.

We start the movie with two stories in parallel, a human couple who are shipwrecked on the African coast and create a new home in the trees with their baby, and a gorilla who has a baby taken from her by leopard Sabor. Grieving the gorilla, Kala (Glenn Close), follows the sound of a baby crying and finds the orphaned child and adopts him, naming him Tarzan.

Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) grows up among the gorillas, knowing he is different but not sure what he actually is. He struggles to fit in with the gorillas, as the leader of the troop Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), never fully accepts him.

tarzan pos

One day Tarzan follows a strange noise and discovers three human explorers, and realises they are like him. He is attracted to Jane Porter (Minnie Driver), an eccentric but kind nature lover like her father Professor Archimedes Porter (Nigel Hawthorne), and they are searching for gorillas to study.

Along with the group is bullish hunter Clayton (Brian Blessed) who seems to have ulterior motives for seeking the animals. Tarzan meets the three of them and is slowly taught how to speak English, aided by his talent for mimicry, and he helps them discover more of the jungle’s secrets.

Kerchak, however, is suspicious and warns Tarzan to stay away from the group. However, when Clayton tells him that Jane is going to leave if she doesn’t find the gorillas soon, Tarzan leads them to the troop’s location. After Kerchak attacks, Tarzan argues and decides to leave with Jane and her father, unfortunately, Clayton sets his double cross in action, trapping them and setting off to capture or kill all the gorillas to sell back in Europe.

This is quite an adventure filled movie, and it’s helped by the filmmakers’ blending of traditional animation with CGI, creating visually striking, fast paced sequences where Tarzan travels among the trees. I’ve never seen Tarzan’s treetop movements captured in such an amazing way, keeping his leaping and climbing, the traditional vine swinging and adding this rather cool sliding thing he does where he almost surfs along the branches.

The jungle is gloriously realised, with lush vegetation and vibrant colours of the parrots making it really come alive. The background animal cast are kept fairly realistic, if slightly stylised, but the supporting beast are all given a nice cartoony vibe, which enables them to better show character and emotion.

As well as looking great the movie sounds wonderful thanks to a superb soundtrack provided by Phil Collins. Collins’ has a knack for crafting rousing, emotive music that marries perfectly with the events on screen and “You’ll Be in My Heart” won a stack of awards, and it’s surrounded by other songs that I totally love and feature on the Disney playlist I have on Spotify.

I love this movie because it manages to hit all the different aspects extremely well- the adventure and action sequences are fantastic, the comedy works and there’s a real emotional heart to the movie. The romance between Tarzan and Jane works, and is rather sweet, and the family dynamics between the gorillas is handled rather well, capturing Tarzan’s problem of being caught between the two different worlds.

There’s also some lovely new tweaks to the story, a condemnation of the hunting of animals through the brutish Clayton, something that animal loving Brian Blessed was massively supportive of. The film’s delight in the animals and gorgeous jungle landscapes seems to have been created with genuine love, similar to the love of nature that Jane and her father possess.

Jane is given fresh life and made into a stronger, more free spirited character than in the books. Minnie Driver’s voice work imbibes the character with an irresistible charm and energy.

For me, this is one of the stronger Disney movies, and while it’s not quite up there with my very favourites, it’s an utterly lovely and enjoyable flick. One that I return to time and again, and which never fails to entertain and move me.

It tweaks ERB’s stories, but the more modern additions actually make it more charming and warmer for it. I just love it.

Disney Score: 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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