Two Worlds, One Family: 20 Years of “Tarzan”

Every now and then, I expand my dialogue about storytelling by going beyond the boundaries of books and out into the mediums of TV and film. I do so by doing these analysis pieces once a while about a TV show or film that has reached a significant time in its history (i.e. series premiere, series finale, film release, anniversary of a release, etc.). Previously, I wrote at length about the Disney Channel series, “So Weird.” Today, similar to “So Weird,” I look to another Disney property that has also reached its 20th anniversary this year; the one that ended the Disney Renaissance with a bang. Today, I’m talking about Disney’s “Tarzan.”

Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, a young orphaned human boy is adopted by a female gorilla and raised to be one of them; regardless of the troop leader’s disapproval. As an adult, Tarzan is living his best life when strangers that look suspiciously similar to him make an appearance in the jungle. As he falls in love with one of these strangers – a human named Jane – Tarzan is at a crisis for where really belongs; with the gorillas he was raised with, or with the strangers like him.

Released in the United States on June 18, 1999, “Tarzan” was the last of the films released during the Disney Renaissance era; a decade during Disney’s history where a resurgence of producing critically and commercially successful animated films occurred; most of which, much like the Golden Age, were based on well-known stories. I was really young when “Tarzan” came out, but I remember seeing promotion, behind-the-scenes looks, and music videos for it on the Disney Channel, months ahead of its release. I remember the very first time I saw something for it: It was footage of Kala finding baby Tarzan all alone in his family’s treehouse.

Since its release, “Tarzan” has been a film that captured my attention as a child and what I’ve come to love even more as an adult, the more I watch and learn about it. There are multiple reasons why:

The animation is very fluid; impossibly seamless for a film that’s set in the jungle. The animators made use of a software available at the time called Deep Canvas, which is what gives the film that feeling as Tarzan glides throughout the trees in the jungle. The detail that went into creating Tarzan is incredible, by using real human anatomy and adapting it for his movements that no real human could actually do. It’s understandable why the decision was made to tell the story of “Tarzan” in animation; to tell it the way it was meant to be told, without having to worry about accidentally killing their lead actor, had it been attempted in live-action.

While the source material – from what I’ve been told – is very dated, I was intrigued to hear how details from the book that weren’t explored in previous adaptations were incorporated into this one; particularly, Tarzan’s relationship with his adopted family. The film really goes in-depth on how different he felt as a child compared to everyone else, and how his mother’s unconditional love helped him overcome his shortcomings to become the best version of himself he can be. It’s because I’ve become so accustomed to this retelling of “Tarzan” that to see any other iteration without showing that family dynamic would feel incomplete.

This film is a step-up from Disney films that have come out both before and since “Tarzan” in how it was told. Specifically, I liked how there were several times in the film where there was no dialogue at all, and yet what occurred in those moments spoke volumes. Dialogue was never necessary in those moments, which is why I consider “Tarzan” to be an effective example of a film that executes showing not telling really well.

I cannot talk about this film without talking about the music. This film broke molds from other Disney films of that era. It has music in it, but it was not a musical. I am grateful to whoever came up with the idea of bringing Phil Collins onboard to do the songs that are heard throughout the film; not coming out of the characters’ mouths, but rather as narration for key moments. It goes without saying – although it has been said several times by many – that he did not have to go that hard on the music, and yet he did, which is why the soundtrack for “Tarzan” – in my opinion – is one of the most effective ones to come out of Disney. That is also why I’ve been a huge Phil Collins fan within the last twenty years.

“Tarzan” remains to be one of my favorite films from Disney to this day, and I find it so hard to believe that it has been out for this long. It stands the test of time, and I hope that younger generations who see it feel the same way.

Two worlds, one family.

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