The Scoop: 1999 G, directed by Chris Buck and Kevin Lima and starring Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Glenn Close, Brian Blessed, Nigel Hawthorne, Lance Henriksen, Wayne Knight and Rosie O’Donnell.
Tagline: An immortal legend. As you’ve only imagined.
Summary Capsule: Man raised by apes, film at eleven.
Deneb’s Review: You ever have this thing happen to you where you mean to go see a movie, and then you don’t, and you’re like “oh well, I’ll rent it later”, but then somehow you don’t, and you kinda forget about it, and years pass, and… ya know?
Well I hope you do know, because that morass of confused English is about as close as you’re going to get to an explanation as to why I didn’t see Tarzan when it first came out. I should have – I normally would have, since I was and am a big Disney fan (yes, me. I know, it’s hard to believe). I think it can probably be chalked up to me not being able to get a ride to the theater or something. As for afterwards, well, this was before Netflix and such, so these things were easier to let slip through the cracks.
And so it did, and since for whatever reason it seems to be one of those Disney movies that people don’t talk about very much, I kind of semi-forgot about its existence – that is until a little while ago, when I spotted a copy at the local flea market. I went “ooh – yoink!” (or words to that effect), snapped it up for the princely sum of fifty cents, and here we all are. And since I’ve wasted enough time making apologies for myself, I suppose we might as well dive right in.
I’m assuming that none of you need an introduction to the basic premise behind Tarzan, but here’s how the movie handles it. Sometime in the 19th Century, a young couple manages to survive a shipwreck along with their baby boy. Fortunately for them, they happen to be washed ashore on a lushly forested island off the coast of Africa. They salvage what they can, build a ramshackle tree house from what’s left of the ship, and prepare to settle down to a life of isolation for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately that future is cut short fairly rapidly, as they happen to cross paths with Sabor, a mad leopardess. They’re cut down like fresh wheat before the claws of the killer, and that pretty much does it for their dream of a happy family life.
For them, that is. You see, their baby survived, and his cries reach the ears of a female gorilla named Kala (Glenn Close), whose own baby has also been a casualty of Sabor. Aching at this loss, and filled with maternal instinct for this creature who looks so similar yet so different from her kind, she adopts it as her own, over the stringent disapproval of Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), her mate and the leader of the troop.
She names the kid Tarzan, and naturally, he has a few issues as he grows older. He can’t keep up with the others, he suffers from Kerchak’s eternal scowls, and, oh yes, he’s a pale scrawny hairless creature surrounded on all sides by bulked-up hairy behemoths. He doesn’t get it – why is he so different? After all, he’s an ape just like all the rest of them, isn’t he?
Still, everyone grows up, and by the time Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) has reached maturity, he has learned to do some pretty amazing things. He can swing from vines! He can swim like a fish! He can wiggle his ears! (Hey, if you don’t think that’s amazing, then you try it, smart guy.)
More importantly, he’s gained a measure of acceptance within the ape community. They’re used to him by now, he’s gained a few good friends, and even Kerchak is starting to warm up to him a bit. Yep, life is lookin’ good for our favorite ape-man.
That’s when things get complicated. It just so happens that one Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne) has set out to Africa, along with his daughter Jane (Minnie Driver) and their guide/bodyguard Clayton (Brian Blessed). What for? To study gorillas – and it just so happens that they’ve picked the exact same area where Tarzan and his family happen to live.
Inevitably, the two groups come into contact, and once Tarzan has figured out just what these strange visitors are, he’s elated. People who look just like him! He’s not a freak after all! Whoopee!
For their part, Jane and the Professor are equally intrigued. A man raised by apes? Fascinating! It also doesn’t hurt that Jane is getting just a little bit of the hots for him – and he just may be reciprocating.
These things, however, are never as easy as they seem. For one thing, Kerchak has banned any of his troop from associating with the newcomers, so every time Tarzan goes to check out the sexy Victorian science-girl, he endangers the newfound peace between them. For another, said science-girl won’t be hanging around the jungle forever – soon enough she and the others will have to leave, and Tarzan will have a difficult decision ahead of him…
Those of you who have read my review of The Rescuers may recall me saying that it had a “rather odd place” in the Disney canon – that of being fairly well-known, but seldom referred to. Tarzan occupies a similar niche – it’s technically a part of the much-ballyhooed “Disney Renaissance” era, alongside such titans as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. It was successful, too – it outgrossed the two films before it, Hercules and Mulan, both fairly profitable at the time.
And yet, somehow, when the DR is brought up, the aforementioned films get mentioned, yet Tarzan tends to get left out. Why is this?
Well, the thing is, most people (or, at any rate, a fair amount of them) seem to view it as the last DR film, ushering in the bad habits and ill-advised tactics that would produce a string of flops in the years following. Oh, people still like it – but not without reservations. Ones that, to some degree, I share.
So let’s talk about these reservations and get them out of the way. The first one is the music.
Tarzan is somewhat atypical in terms of music, in that it has no musical numbers. There is music in it, but the characters themselves (with one brief exception) ain’t singin’. Instead, the songs were written and performed by singer Phil Collins, and are delivered as background music.
This does not make Tarzan unique amongst Disney films. There’s at least one (The Rescuers again – eerie, huh?) that uses this exact same format, and several that don’t have any songs at all – and most of ‘em were good regardless. And while some people have gone on record as really disliking Collins’ songs for the movie, overall I thought they were fine – some are actually quite good. (My personal favorite is “Son of Man”, which, while admittedly a tad generic, is really rather powerful in context.)
There is, however, one song that I think is completely out of place. It’s called “Two Worlds”, and you won’t have to wait long for it, since it starts up about a minute into the movie. It plays over the initial set-up for the premise – the parents washing ashore, Sabor going on a rampage, etc. – and oh my word, does it mess things up. I mean, this is dramatic stuff that’s happening here! You’ve got shipwrecked castaways, crazy leopards, freakin’ babies being killed and abandoned! Out of all the times when the events should speak for themselves, this is the chief one – but no, we’ve got Phil Collins going “oh, man, you guys, this is important! It’s so important that I’m gonna spell it out for you word for word as the stuff I’m singing about happens onscreen!”
I could forgive all this if the song itself was really powerful, but no, it’s not. It’s not bad, per se; it’s just the sort of thing that you would expect to be played over the end credits – and in fact, it is played over the end credits, and yeah, it works a lot better there! What the hell?!
Now, like I said, I overall do like the way the music for the movie is handled, so I don’t want to tar the whole movie with the brush of one song. But seriously, whoever came up with such a boneheaded place to put the thing has earned a few dirty looks from me if I ever meet them, because it sends Tarzan’s whole mood careening off the rails right as the movie starts! Thankfully, it makes up for it afterwards, but good grief.
Then there’s the second questionable aspect – the comic relief. Specifically, one particular aspect of the comic relief – specifically, one character. Specifically specifically, Tarzan’s best friend Terk, a tomboy gorilla who’s his adopted cousin.
Why do I hate Terk? Terk is voiced by Rosie O’Donnell. Now, I have nothing in particular against Miss O’Donnell, but hoo boy, was she miscast here. Every time Terk opens her mouth, that blaring Noo Yawk-accented voice comes out practically unmodulated. For all intents, Terk is Rosie O’Donnell.
Honestly, it’s not like I demand realism in my talking cartoon animals or anything, but there’s a certain mood and tone that the movie is going for, and every time – every single time – Terk opens her mouth, I’m yanked right out of it. I’ll be going “oh, wow! Tarzan! Gorillas! Jungly stuff!” and then Terk shows up and BRAAAAA, “hey, Tahzan, you wanna take the subway ovah to Central Park an’ then maybe swing by Coney Island?” It just… oy! Couldn’t you try to sound just a little less like yourself, Rosie O’Donnell? I mean, Eddie Murphy never sounds like anything but himself when he does a voice, and yet he makes it work! Why can’t you?
Again, all this could have been forgiven if the character herself was particularly deep or relevant, but she’s not. In fact, she has practically no affect on the story at all; she pretty much just horses around with Tarzan and makes wisecracks and that’s it. To be fair, she does clearly care for her friend and worries about him when he’s in trouble, but that’s the only good thing I can find to say about her. She’s just kind of pushy and loud and bossy and I hate her. Let’s move on.
The last real problem I have with Tarzan is admittedly more of a personal nitpick than anything else, but I feel it should be addressed anyway. It’s the pacing.
Now don’t get me wrong, most of the pacing is fine. The film tells a complete story, and overall does it pretty well. The problem lies in their approach to the material that they’re adapting, and the choices they made therein.
Let me explain. Tarzan, unlike many adaptations of the original book, chooses to focus more on his role in his adopted family and his conflicted feelings about his place in the world than the usual Tarzan-fights-things stuff. There’s nothing wrong with this – it makes for a good story, and addresses some universal human themes. I like it fine.
The problem is that, while the movie is set pretty much entirely in the jungle, there are certain key elements to it that involve the world outside the jungle, and these are… well, somewhat crowded, shall we say. Take Tarzan’s parents, for instance. Their role in every incarnation of his story is to get killed off; I get that, but these two don’t even have any lines! We can see that they love each other and everything, but by the time that freaking opening number is over, so are they. We pretty much see them building the treehouse, and then Sabor attacks offscreen, and then they’re dead. It’s just not very satisfying.
The same applies to Jane, the Professor and Clayton. Oh sure, they get plenty of screen time, but personally I would have liked them to get just a little bit more. I mean, these are good characters that quickly come to dominate the film – without them, the plot would have nowhere to go.
The thing is, though, they show up out of nowhere roughly halfway through the story. Tarzan himself gets plenty of backstory, but none of his fellow humans do, despite the fact that these are pivotal characters that change his life. After all, Jane more or less becomes the co-protagonist throughout a good chunk of the movie, with her struggle to understand Tarzan mimicking his to understand her, and yet the first we see of her she’s walking through the jungle. A glimpse of her world would have helped to give us a bit more insight into her character – if, for example, she was shown to not quite fit into the starchy atmosphere of Victorian Britain, that would have emphasized the similarities between her and her vine-swinging beau, and at the same time given us something to contrast against the ever-present jungle atmosphere.
Basically, this is a movie that would have benefited from just a few more minutes in which to address such issues. Its running time is 88 minutes – if they could have stretched it another five, it would have made it that little bit more satisfying. Tarzan does not demand to be long and sprawling, but it could have used a bit more time in which to work out the kinks. Give it a little room to stretch, and you’d be amazed how many of these nitpicks would vanish.
OK, enough of that – let’s talk about the good stuff. And I’m glad we have gotten to this point, because despite my aforementioned gripes, Tarzan is a movie that I genuinely enjoyed watching.
Let’s start with the animation, because everybody who likes this movie gushes over the animation, and who am I to buck the trend? The animation is pretty darn good. Some of the jungle backgrounds are really quite beautiful in an impressionistic kind of way, and the character animation is simple yet expressive. It’s not quite as jaw-dropping as I’m sure it would have been in the late ‘90’s, but do I care? Uh-uh. It’s classic Renaissance-era Disney stuff, and who doesn’t like that? Fools and knaves, that’s who.
Also, it’s animation appropriately applied, given the subject material – this was, I’m pretty sure, the first such treatment of Tarzan ever, and if Tarzan doin’ his jungle thang didn’t look awesome, there was going to be rioting in the aisles. Fortunately, it did. Oh boy, did it ever.
What we have here is the first Tarzan who genuinely looks and acts like he was raised by apes in a jungle. Gone is that pretty-boy hairstyle – he’s got long, ropy dreads that probably smell terrible. That’s small potatoes, though – the real revelation is how this guy moves. To start with, the main way he gets around is just like a gorilla would, i.e, he knuckle-walks. This doesn’t look anywhere near as awkward as it would with a live actor, though – instead, it seems to lend him an animalistic agility as he leaps about, being just as likely to land on his hands as his feet.
And that’s just when he’s on the ground. Tarzan, as everyone knows, is at his best when he’s swinging through the trees, and never has that been more true than here. But it’s not just swinging, no no no – he basically turns the jungle into his own personal playset. He glides over the surface of the branches, sliding down them like he was surfing a wave, and when he does vine-swing, he uses his feet almost as much as his hands, a technique that is reflected in his basic design. Look at his big toes – they’re notably separated from the others, like a thumb. Clearly, he has been using them in a prehensile fashion since early childhood, and this has spread them out. It’s such a simple thing, but could you have thought of that? I sure couldn’t have.
As for Tarzan himself, minus the bells and whistles, he’s pretty cool, too. As played by Tony Goldwyn, he balances the typical jungle-man portrayal – you know, tough as nails, takes on creatures twice his size and wins, growls and snarls when he’s mad – with a surprisingly large dose of vulnerability. If I had to describe him in a word, it would be “unsophisticated”, and I don’t mean that in a bad or derogatory way. There is no pretense or artifice to this guy at all, because he hasn’t learnt it; he wears his feelings on his sleeve. When he feels sad, worried or conflicted, he droops like a big ol’ puppy dog; while he’s learning about his human side, his features shine with childlike joy and fascination – and, like I said, when he gets mad, you might as well be facing down an angry panther.
This is a very different approach to the character, and one that I for one approve of. His appeal has generally been more of an escapist fantasy than anything else – Tarzan is cool because you want to be swinging through the jungle and telling elephants to stomp your enemies flat. And yes, that element is here, too, and it’s pulled off well (if nothing else, they nail the yell), but he’s also cool because he, himself, is cool. He’s badass while remaining relatable; you genuinely feel for this guy, and want him to win his battles, which you look forward to since you know they’ll be worth watching – and if that’s not the sign of a good hero, then I don’t know what is.
Moving on to his better half (or whatever you’d call her), we have Jane. I love Jane. She is honestly one of my favorite Disney heroines ever, and I shall now attempt to explain to you why this is without squealing in an enthusiastic yet embarrassing fashion.
To start with, there’s the voice. I don’t know how much voice acting Minnie Driver has done, but she really should do more of it, because she’s just brilliant here. She invests Jane with such a heaping helping of charm, I’m honestly surprised it didn’t leak out onto the screen and cause a mess. She’s just so… British, in all the best ways.
OK, OK, I can see in my mind’s eye every single reader from the UK rolling their eyes and saying “now that requires a bloody explanation, mate.” Fair enough. What I mean is that she’s British in the way that all non-Brits (or, at any rate, this non-Brit) kind of secretly imagine the ideal Brit to be. She’s got the whole stiff-upper-lip thing going on, yet at the same time she’s this eccentric scientifically-minded type who’s just bubbling over with enthusiasm while remaining scrupulously polite, almost to a fault. She’s slightly clumsy, extremely vulnerable and a bit of a worrywart, but with a core of steel – it just happens to be housed inside the body of a petite young Victorian lady who can’t really do much to defend herself (although that doesn’t stop her trying). She’s overall the sort of person who, if bumping into you by accident, would apologize profusely, ask several times if you’re all right, explain that she was distracted because of this thing she was jotting down in her notebook, which she would show to you, apologize again, and then scurry away.
Overall, I just like Jane. She seems like a real sort of person you might bump into in the street. True, she’s a bit of a damsel in distress, but she’s a realistic one, whose distress is caused more from her circumstances than from her character. She’s generally a delight, and I love her to pieces.
Next up on the heroes list, we have Kala. Kala, by her very nature, is not an overwhelming presence in the film – she doesn’t fight anyone, she doesn’t really have much of a storyarc or anything like that, so out of necessity she tends to get shuffled into the background a bit so that the more dramatic characters can shine. It’s just what tends to happen when you’re a more low-key sort of character.
That being said, Kala is probably the most important character in the movie, second to Tarzan himself. It’s not a surprise that an acclaimed actress like Glenn Close manages to do a good job in the role, but she really, really does. Kala is the central figure in Tarzan’s life, and remains so even after Jane has entered the picture. The two clearly love each other very deeply, and you can understand why – she’s the very embodiment of patient, compassionate motherhood, and never for a moment questions or regrets her decision to adopt him. And really, we don’t either. It’s somewhat of an accomplishment to make a mother-son relationship between an ape and a human seem plausible, but the movie pulls it off flawlessly – it doesn’t matter that they’re different species; she’s his mom, and from the get-go, that’s how we see her. The bond between the two is really the heart and soul of the movie, and I’m not ashamed to admit that several of the sequences involving them make me tear up just a little.
Moving on to supporting characters, let’s start with Kerchak, the ape-man’s ape-daddy. As played by Lance Henriksen, Kerchak is really somewhat of a different character than you’d expect – if you were to go on a basic plot description, you’d probably think he’d be the villain. I mean, he’s kind of this looming presence in our hero’s life, and is constantly putting him down throughout the movie – you could, I suppose, see him as the “Voice of the Establishment”, representing the forces of societal repression.
The thing is, though, while he does represent all those things, he’s still solidly in the good guy camp. He’s not Tarzan’s enemy; he just doesn’t approve of him, believing that he’s an outsider who doesn’t belong with them – and let’s face it, technically, he’s right. He may be misguided in his prejudice against him, but in the end he’s just trying to protect his family. He is an antagonist, but he’s not the villain.
That honor belongs to… well. Hmm. OK, if you are very easily fooled by every red herring thrown your way, even if it’s not so much thrown as languorously flipped, and you are absolutely bound and determined to be astounded by even the smallest twist in the plot, then you may want to skip this next bit. But really, folks, this barely counts as a spoiler. If you have seen any movies before this one, then you will likely see this coming from ten thousand miles away.
Duly warned? OK. It’s Clayton. The villain is Clayton. Of course it is – he’s a Great White Hunter stereotype in a freakin’ Tarzan movie; he couldn’t be more obviously the villain if a little monkey was sitting on his shoulders pointing and jabbering and holding a sign that read “Look! Look! The villain!”
Anyway. As Disney villains go, Clayton is nothing particularly special, but that doesn’t make him a poor-quality one. Brian Blessed tones down his notoriously hammy tendencies to give a rather restrained performance (albeit still a good deal hammier than the rest of the cast). Clayton clearly thinks of himself as a suave, dashing type, but in reality is a thoroughly petty, nasty-minded blowhard with a filthy temper who is blind to the jungle wonders around him and thinks only of personal gain. I won’t give away just what he’s up to, but let’s just say it fits perfectly into his character. Since he’s not “revealed” as the villain until near the end, he doesn’t get to do much of the typical over-the-top villainous stuff, which is kind of a shame, because when he does, he really lets loose. By the end, he’s shown himself as the perfect foil for Tarzan, as he’s something like a dark mirror image of our hero. While Tarzan is a wild man learning the ways of civilization, Clayton is a civilized man going feral – and if you don’t think there are some disturbing possibilities in that, well… keep thinking.
It’s honestly somewhat surprising that he does work so well as the villain, since another character has already been set up for the position in rather obvious fashion – Sabor. I mean she’s the one whose murderous rampage kicks off the plot to begin with, right? Not to mention that she’s really kind of scary in her basic design. That weird, angular face! Those snakelike eyes! That fang-filled snarl! Put them all together and you have the stuff that little kids’ nightmares are made of. If that’s not first-class villain material, I don’t know what is.
True, she does stick around and affect the plot further, but she’s hardly the main baddie, and quickly vanishes from the movie once her plot thread is wound up. I suppose one could argue that she could have run the risk of being too reminiscent of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book if she’d stuck around, but really, there are other things they could have done with her. Personally, I would have had Clayton capture her early on, and keep her in a cage to take back to England – then in the final confrontation, she’s let loose, and RRRAOWW! Crazy P.O’d leopardess to fight, along with the guy with a gun!
Eh, they’re both fine where they are, I guess. Still, it would have been nice if they’d gotten more screen time.
Winding things up, we have the supporting cast – of which, really, we only have two. First is Professor Porter, Jane’s dad. He honestly doesn’t do a hell of a lot in the movie except get very excited over everything and sort of bumble around, but Nigel Hawthorne does a good job at making him a likable old chap who has a very loving relationship with his daughter (and has clearly passed on his interests and enthusiasm to her). Next is Tantor (Wayne Knight), Tarzan’s other best friend since childhood, who just so happens to be an elephant. He’s kind of a one-trick pony – the joke is that he’s really neurotic and anxious over everything, despite being a multi-ton jungle behemoth – and, of course, he hangs out with Terk, so he’s a bit overshadowed by her horribleness, but overall, I kind of like the big guy. He undoubtedly has his irritating moments, but Wayne Knight is a better voice actor than Rosie O’Donnell is, that’s for sure, and he has more effect on the plot than that ‘orrible little ape ever does. You’re all right in my book, Tantor! Now go get therapy!
Final thoughts? This movie is not perfect, but despite its flaws, it really does deliver in most regards. The animation is great; the songs are (largely) better than you’ve heard, Tarzan himself is quite a decent and intriguing interpretation of the classic character, and while I haven’t seen any of the other versions of Jane yet, I bet none of ‘em were as much of a cutie-pie as this one. (Although Maureen O’Sullivan is rumored to come close.) It’s exciting, it’s (sometimes) funny, it has some genuinely moving moments and a surprisingly large amount of violence for a Disney flick, resulting in a gloves-are-off atmosphere that serves the film well. It could certainly be better, but overall I would definitely recommend it. I can’t promise that it’ll resonate with you the same way it did with me, but if you haven’t checked it out by now, it’s worth a rental at least.
Now, if you’ll pardon me for a moment, there’s something I need to get out of the way. *coughs* Mi-mi-mi… La-LA-la – ah, there we go. Ahem.
Aaaaaaah, ah-ah-AH-aaah, ah-ah-AH-aaaaaah!
- Several of the relationships between the main characters were considerably altered from the book. For example, the original Kerchak was actually the one who murdered Tarzan’s parents, and Terk (full name Terkoz) was A: male and B: Tarzan’s arch-enemy!
- Tarzan’s distinctive way of sliding down branches was inspired by a son of one of the animators, who liked surfing and skateboarding. To capture the way his body would move, they used pro skateboarder Tony Hawk as a reference.
- In the books, the apes were not gorillas but instead Mangani, a fictional species of ape described as halfway between gorillas and chimpanzees.
- Jane’s excited rehash of how she met Tarzan was largely ad-libbed by Minnie Driver, as were Nigel Hawthorne’s reactions to it.
- In the book, “Sabor” was the Mangani term for a lioness, with the term for a leopardess being “Sheeta”. “Sabor” was used in the movie basically because they thought it sounded cooler.
- While it may seem unrealistic for Tarzan to learn English as fast as he does, there is actually a good reason for this – it’s emphasized that he’s a skilled mimic, and is excellent at parroting sounds he’s heard.
- Tarzan’s branch-sliding technique is actually something people do in real life, albeit not on branches. It’s called “grinding”, and while it’s largely done with skateboards on railings and such, it is possible to pull off with your feet, given the appropriate footwear. (I attribute Tarzan’s success without it to lots of practice, thick calluses, and slippery moss.)
Song lyric: Son of man, look to the sky/Lift your spirit, set it free/Someday you’ll walk tall with pride/Son of man, a man in time you’ll be.
Jane: I’m in a tree with a man who talks to monkeys!
Tantor: Y’know, I’ve been thinkin’ lately that maybe Tarzan could be some subspecies of elephant.
Terk: What, are you crazy, an elephant?
Tantor: Listen to me, think about it! He enjoys a peanut, I enjoy a peanut…
Clayton: Even if you hadn’t grown up a savage, you’d be lost. There are no trails through a woman’s heart.
Jane: I was saved! I was saved by a flying wild man in a loincloth!
Tantor: I’ve never felt so alive!
Terk: Good, ‘cause I’m gonna kill ya.
Professor Porter: What is it? Is it a Hippopotamus Amphibius? Or a Rhinoceros Bicornius?
Jane: You do speak! And all this time I thought you were just a big, wild, quiet, silent person-thing…
(Jane is imitating Tarzan’s knuckle-walking)
Professor Porter: Oh, I see! Like Aunt Isabelle!
Kala: I’m your mother; I know everything. Now where have you been?
Tarzan: I thought you knew everything.
Jane: It can’t get any worse, can it?… Well, obviously it can.
Tantor: OK! It’s all fun and games ‘til someone loses an eye!
Terk: What kinda primitive beasts are responsible for this mess?
Clayton: If I can teach a parrot to sing ‘God Save the Queen’, I can certainly teach this savage a thing or two.
Professor Porter: Shall I leave you and the blackboard alone for a moment?
Jane: Well, this is absolutely peachy!
Tantor: I’ve had it with you and your emotional constipation! Tarzan needs us, and we’re gonna help him! Ya got that?
Jane: Ooh ooh ee ah ooh.
Clayton: Be a man.
Tarzan: Not a man like you!
If you liked this movie, try these:
- The Rescuers Down Under
- Any of the old Tarzan flicks