Personal Overview: you can’t not be aware of Tarzan. The ‘man raised by apes’ is one of the cultural icons of the 20th century. The story has been told so many times and filmed so often as well as creating spin offs that it’s surprising it took Disney until the end of the century to get hold of it. It is possible that there was a rights issue, Burroughs protected his intellectual property carefully and so did his estate.
Disney’s version follows the original story loosely as they tend to do, and many of the other adaptations also veered significantly away from Burrough’s original. I was very pleased to see they omitted the highly offensive racial profiling from the original book. Interestingly enough they also turned Jane into an Englishwoman rather than an American.
I kept thinking of two things while watching this. One was the old Jay Ward and Bill Scott animated series George of the Jungle, which was a parody of Tarzan. This didn’t play it as much for laughs as that did, but the elephant character Tantor (played by Wayne Knight from Seinfeld) kept putting me in mind of George’s pet elephant Shep, and I don’t think Tarzan’s best friend (celebrity casting Rosie O’Donnell) the tomboyish gorilla Terk would have been out of place in George’s company. The second thing was the 1984 film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, starring French actor Christopher Lambert as Tarzan, largely because the physical resemblance between the animated Tarzan and Lambert was astonishing. I don’t know if they tried to cast Lambert as his voice, but they should have. I’m also sure this was coincidental, but Jane’s father Archimedes Porter looked like Sir Ralph Richardson, but this is probably just because he looks like a funny old scientific duffer with the huge facial hair.
There’s a good bit of tension at the end, which kind of wrong foots the viewer. When Tarzan and Co are imprisoned on the ship I actually thought the white hunter Clayton may turn out to be their savior in an inverting of the villain trope, but he was actually the one who was in league with the pirates/poachers and it turned into a do or die showdown between Clayton and Tarzan.
I really liked the ending with Jane and Tarzan both swinging through the forest together and being set up as the protectors of the domain. That’s how it worked in a number of the sequels to the original, both written and filmed. It also had shades of the comic The Phantom, which if Disney wanted to try and do it, would be an interesting project for them to explore.
Hero/es: the film is called Tarzan, that’s the answer. He really has to fight on a number of fronts: against silverback Kerchak to prove that he belongs as a member of the group, to protect Jane from the jungle and then against Clayton to survive and keep his family free. Trantor and Terk inadvertently become heroes as well.
Villain/s: Clayton probably won’t appear on the villains roster at Disney, largely because he’s fairly unremarkable. Single minded, wants money and fame. He looks a bit like McLeach from The Rescuers Down Under and he’s similar in his poaching activities. He also physically reminded me of Gaston, who was also a hunter. You could also put the leopard in here, but I kind of like leopards, and it was only doing what leopards do and hunting.
Cuteness Factor: baby Tarzan is cute, all babies in Disney films are. Terk probably filled this for the most part and along with Trantor provided the comic relief as well, unsurprising as both parts were voiced by comedians.
Animation: this was brilliant. The scenes of Tarzan making his way through the jungle are breathtaking. Amazing that the parks never set up a ride based on it, because viewing it gave me the feel of a roller coaster ride. This was also a move towards making the characters look more lifelike and definitely basing them on real people. I’ve mentioned Tarzan’s similarities to Christopher Lambert and Jane is largely modeled on Minnie Driver; the British actress that voiced her, and had a growing profile at the time. The animators also had a little joke where they included a cameo by Mrs Potts and Chip during the camp scene.
Final Words: again they struggled to find a balance between slapstick comedy and high drama and could have put it somewhere in the middle with better results. It was far from the most successful Renaissance film, but I quite liked it. The ending gave it a prequel feel and there was a short lived spin off TV show that picked up where the film left off. No sequel, but it could have used one I felt.