Year of Disney #37: “Tarzan” (1999)

After the refreshing but, at least for me, flawed Mulan, Disney once again knocked another one out of the park with Tarzan, which also has the distinction of being the final film of the Disney Renaissance period. Disney wouldn’t have another hit along these lines until what is now being referred to as the Disney Revival, which began 10 years later with The Princess and the Frog.

And it is a much stronger film to end this era on than Mulan, for numerous reasons. It continues the trend begun with The Lion King and Pocahontas that stretched throughout the latter half of the Disney Renaissance, of selecting less traditional material for the Disney treatment than European fairy tales, here the classic pulp literature of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Jane and Tarzan

Jane and Tarzan

It also continues the gradual trend of Disney’s beginning to move away from the animated musical formula. Unlike Mulan, however, it boasts a strong score–with music and lyrics by acclaimed pop singer/songwriter Phil Collins–which although more often than not sung off-screen by Collins himself rather than by the characters themselves, manages to feel more theatrical than Mulan‘s generic tunes; they’re deeply beautiful and rooted in the emotions of the characters. It’s a very pop score that sounds completely unBroadway (although it, ironically, spawned a poorly reviewed and poorly attended Broadway show) and contains no big group numbers other than the monkeys scatting in a lyric-less but endlessly catchy number called “Trashin’ the Camp,” and so it seems fitting as the final Disney “sort-of-musical” for another 10 years.

Also, thankfully, Tarzan foregoes Disney’s increasingly patented insistence on including humorous anachronism in works for which they are otherwise inappropriate. The pop cultural gags worked in Aladdin and Hercules, because that tone was established very clearly and very early on. They worked less well in the otherwise magnificent The Hunchback of Notre Dame and in Mulan, where they often felt jarringly out of place. Tarzan includes no winking references to the modern day. The only similar joke is that Jane and her father have brought a tea set with them from England that looks identical to what Mrs. Potts and her kids (including Chip) from Beauty and the Beast would like if they were truly inanimate–but this joke doesn’t break the reality of the film’s world the way similar sight gags in previous films have. Here, it’s simply an oblique reference to another Disney film. There’s no reason these characters couldn’t have a tea set that happens to look like that from another Disney story.

Turk and the Teaset

Turk and the Teaset

Now, as the ape, Turk, Rosie O’Donnell does boast her usual New Yawk accent, which might seem a bit out of place, but as she doesn’t crack jokes about…say, New York taxi cabs and the Yankees, it’s forgivable, particularly since it’s not as if an “authentic” ape-speaking-English voice is possible anyway.

The film is extremely authentic from an emotional standpoint, however. One might not expect an animated version of the famous story about the man raised in the jungle by apes to be so deeply moving, and yet Disney manages to do so by depicting these characters under a modern psychological context, as they did with all of the Renaissance films, the crux of this piece surrounding the concept of adoption and what makes a family.

Author: Robert Berg

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