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Yeah, so for this movie Disney pioneered a new technique called “Deep Canvas” to allow two dimensional animated characters to interact with 3D environments. And sweet Jiminy Cricket but it is gorgeous. In fact, everything about this first sequence is pretty much flawless film-making. We cut back and forth between Tarzan’s family as they begin a new life in the jungle, and the family of Kerchak (Lance Henrikson) and Kala (Glenn Close), two gorillas who are raising their own child. In a few quick scenes, these six characters are efficiently and effectively drawn. Little moments are used to show us their relationship, like the smile they give each other as they build their house in the treetops, or the way Kala gleefully tosses her baby into the air, only to cut to Tarzan being caught in the exact same way by his mother. Oh…and then Kala’s baby gets eaten by a leopard.
It’s horribly sudden, shocking and utterly traumatising. My God. Walt Disney would be so proud.
As the song continues a heartbroken Kala is following the rest of the gorilla troupe when she hears a baby crying and runs off to find it. The sound leads her to the house Tarzan’s parents have built. She cautiously explores and finds the place wrecked with blood and pawprints everywhere. She finds baby Tarzan, and realises that his parents were killed by Sabor the leopard, just like her baby.
Unfortunately, Sabor just decided to kick back after murdering Tarzan’s parents and she’s still in the treehouse. We get an absolutely phenomenal sequence of Sabor chasing Kala through the treehouse while trying to protect the baby. It alternates between terrifying peril and fantastic physical comedy and finally ends with Kala leaving Sabor trapped in the treehouse and snarling defiance at her as Phil Collins kicks in again. It’s just awesome, and what’s even more remarkable is that we’re almost eight minutes into this movie and not a single line of dialogue has been uttered.
Kala brings Tarzan back to the troupe and tells the other gorillas that she’s going to raise this hairless mutant herself. Kerchak isn’t happy about this, telling her to leave Tarzan back where she found him. Kerchak, to me, is like the Anti-Mufasa. He has all the power and gravitas, but none of the warmth and tenderness. I think Kerchak is what Mufasa might have been like if Simba had died in the stampede instead of him. He’s been hurt in the worst way anyone can be, he lost his child. All that love has to go somewhere. Kala has dealt with it by transferring her love to another child, but Kerchak can’t do that and instead has just burnt it all to the ground. His inability to love Tarzan as a son will prove to have grave consequences for both him and Tarzan, whereas Kala’s love for Tarzan will eventually save her. And if it seems like I’m giving this movie heavier analysis than usual, it’s that kind of movie. Kerchak finally agrees to let Tarzan stay when Kala tells him that his family is dead and there were no other humans. Kala tells Kerchak that Tarzan will make a good son, and Kerchak snarls “I said he could stay. That doesn’t make him my son.” And I recommend watching this scene for anyone under the illusion that Lance Henrikson is not a scary motherfucker. Kala sings a lullaby to Tarzan to get him to sleep, and I have to give the animators props on some absolutely superb infant animation. The baby is cartoonishly adorable, but moves so realisically I’m not entirely convinced they didn’t just get a real baby and dip it in paint.
We skip ahead a few years and Tarzan has grown into a sprightly moppet voiced by recovering Nice Young Gentleman Who’s Doing the Best He Can; Alex Pruitt.
Nah, fair’s fair. He’s been in some crap but he’s fine in this. Tarzan is beloved by his adopted mother, but the other gorillas look on him as a freak. It’s kind of like Hercules, except I give a stuttering rat’s ass. Oh, and Kerchak really doesn’t like him. In fact, when Tarzan accidentally runs into Kerchak, Terk (Rosie O’Donnell) has to rescue him. Terk was originally supposed to be male (he’s a male in the book, but he’s Tarzan’s enemy, not a friend) but none of the actors Disney brought in were able to make the character work. Finally Rosie O’Donnell read for the part and they liked her so much they gender flipped the character. Terk ditches Tarzan to meet up with her friends at the elephant watering hole spaldadlalala…
But Tarzan manages to keep up. Terk’s friends want her to get rid of him, so she tells him that to join the group he has to pluck a hair from an elephant’s tail. Terk thinks Tarzan will back off, but instead he leaps into the watering hole, belly flops and gets rescued by a friendly hippopotamus.
We now meet Tantor the baby elephant and his family. Tantor is kind of a hypochondriac, asking his mother if the water is sanitary and worrying about bacteria. He then sees Tarzan swimming towards the herd and shouts out a warning that there’s a piranha in the water. His mother tells him that there are no piranhas in Africa, and then one of the other elephants corrects her, and then a third elephant corrects him that they are indeed native only to South America and whoah whoah whoah…
How do these elephants know about bacteria, piranhas and frickin’ South America?! Do they have a subscription to the National Geographic?! Well anyhow, the elephants start to panic when Tarzan grabs a hair from one of them and he sets off a stampede.
The elephants storm through the gorillas nesting grounds, and Kerchak has to save one of the infant gorillas from being trampled. Which he does. Like an absolute boss. Terk pulls Tarzan from the water, but he’s not breathing. Tantor warns Terk away from Tarzan, yelling “Don’t you know a piranha can strip your flesh in seconds!?”
NO! SHE DOESN’T KNOW THAT! HOW DO YOU?!
Anyway, the other gorillas show up and Kerchak is pissed (understandable, almost seeing another baby die has got to open up old wounds) and tells Kala that Tarzan will never learn to be one of them. Tarzan runs off but Kala finds him. We get a…oh man, this scene is just beautiful. Kala shows him all the things they have in common, (two eyes, hands, heartbeat, love of delicious, delicious bananas) and says that they’re basically the same. Tarzan resolves to prove himself to Kerchak and become the best ape ever.
This takes us into the next song, Son of Man which acts as a montage showing Tarzan becoming stronger and more adept at living in the jungle, learning to climb trees, using tools and learning to swim with the help of friendly hippos.
Okay that’s it. Stop. Sorry. This is a real pet peeve of mine. Why the fuck do hippos get a free pass? Why do we still labour under this misguided delusion that hippos are our friends? Hippos are not our friends. Hippos are our worst enemies (and that’s saying something, human beings have a larger and more impressive rogues gallery than Batman). We treat sharks like they’re Satan with a mohawk and yet how do we depict literally the most dangerous animal in all of Africa?
We make little boardgames of them swallowing marbles and stick them on cereal boxes. Why? Because they look like sentient leather couches? In conclusion: Fuck hippos.
We also see Tarzan learning his signature move, swinging from the trees like a Shia LaBeouf in its native habitat. Tarzan now grows into an adult, voiced by Tony Goldwyn. Tarzan is probably one of the most taciturn of all the Disney leads but Goldwyn does a great job with the relatively few lines he’s given. He’s got a really deep voice, almost like a gorilla’s grunt. I also have to give props to Tarzan’s animator, the great Glen Keane for creating a character that looks and moves like nothing else in the Disney canon. Watching the Making Of for this movie, one of the points that gets made over and over again is that this is the first screen depiction of Tarzan where he actually moves the way he’s described as moving in Burrough’s original novels.
Tarzan’s now twenty and has become an asset to the troupe. And Tantor. Who now just…hangs around with the gorillas. Tantor makes my head hurt. Oh yeah, also he’s now voiced by Wayne Knight.
Sabor suddenly attacks and Kerchak tries to fight her off but is injured. And then Tarzan swings in with a spear to show Sabor how we do things at the top of the food chain.
A kick ass fight scene that kicks ass ensues, and ends with Tarzan lifting Sabor’s broken corpse over his head and hollering vowels.
The other gorillas treat Tarzan like a hero, but Tarzan lays Sobar’s body at Kerchak’s feet and it looks like Kerchak might, just might, be about to show Tarzan something like affection when they hear a gunshot in the distance.
Kerchak orders the troupe to move out, but Tarzan sneaks off to investigate. It’s now that Tarzan sees one of his own species for the first time: Clayton.
Alright, so let’s get this out of the way. Clayton, to me, is by far the weakest element of this movie. He’s a very generic Disney villain in the same way Ratcliffe was, but without David Ogden Stiers excellent voicework to help carry the character. The casting is also off, because they decided that the villain of this movie should be voiced by BRIAN BLESSED. Look, I love BRIAN BLESSED, he’s a big hammy teddybear. He’s like Santa Claus’s randy brother. But, and I’m sorry for uttering such a controversial statement…he’s not the most subtle performer.
And a good Disney villain needs subtlety. You gotta have some strings with the brass. But BRIAN BLESSED doesn’t do subtly, he’s just a big loud trumpet. This is not how you use your BRIAN BLESSED. What else? Well, the design doesn’t really do anything for me. And to top it off he’s boring! He just wants to capture some gorillas for cash. I mean, that can work as a motivation for a character (Jesus, McLeach was terrifying) but you need something more. If they’d kept the back story from the book (Clayton is Tarzan’s cousin who usurps his inheritance) that could have been interesting. Or if they’d gotten an actor who could bring some gravitas and menace to the character like…who else were they considering? Oh you are kidding me…
Yeah, apparently this is around the five hundredth Disney movie that they considered Patrick Stewart for and he turned them down. He was also offered Triton, Zazu, Zeus, Jafar…just tell me he finally got to do something with Disney, please?
Mr. Woolensworth in Chicken Little.
Fuck. Every. Damn. Thing.
Oh, we also meet Jane, of “Me Tarzan, you…” fame. How do I feel about this character? Okay, the design is fantastic and also kinda dishy.
Scratch that; really dishy.
Scratch that; *low animal growl of primal lust*.
And I love the character as written; a hilarious, nerdy, flighty fish out of water. It’s just…I don’t like Minnie Driver’s performance. Sorry. It’s not bad exactly, it just doesn’t gel with the character onscreen. It just sounds like a bad fit, it’s hard to describe. We also meet her dad, Professor Porter (Nigel Hawthorne) and learn that the two of them have come to Africa to study gorillas and that Clayton is their jungle guide. The three proceed through the jungle with Tarzan watching them until Jane comes across a small monkey.
She sketches him in her notebook, and he likes the picture so much he snatches it from her and runs off into the jungle. Jane manages to wrest it back off him so he starts crying. Which attracts the attention of his family. A mob of vicious killer baboons.
They chase her through the jungle and Tarzan swoops down and rescues her, leading the baboons on a mad chase through the vines and the animation in this scene is just flawless. It’s fluid, thrilling and absolutely hilarious, just a great, great sequence. So anyway, Tarzan gives the baboons back the drawing and Jane finds herself trapped in a tree with “a man who talks to monkeys”. Jane is clearly frightened of Tarzan because he really doesn’t get personal boundaries and he’s all up in her personal space. Oh, and then we get an absolutely beautiful piece of animation where he gently pulls her glove off and realises that they’re the same species. It’s just…this movie is so gorgeous…I…MOVIE, MARRY ME!
Terk and and the gorillas start messing around with the camps possessions and creating different sounds and we get the only wholly non-diegetic song in the entire movie; Trashin’ The Camp. Trashin’ the Camp is kind of a tough one to rate. It was written because Rosie O’Donnell would only voice Terk on the condition that she got a song and it kind of shows. It doesn’t advance the plot like the other songs, and it doesn’t even really have lyrics other than “Zooby zo doo wop” style scat. And frankly Phil Collins, that’s just not good enough. I mean, when you’re writing songs for a Disney movie you’ve got to be mindful of the great songwriters who have gone before you. You’d never see the Sherman brothers filling their songs with meaningless nonsense words!
Ahem. Objection withdrawn.
Tarzan and Jane arrive back at the camp to see that Terk and the other gorillas have trashed it in the name of artistic expression. Jane sees Tarzan talking with Terk and realises that the gorillas think he’s one of them. Kerchak arrives and for a moment it lookes like he’s going to re-enact the end of King Kong with Jane (only this time, it will be the Beast that killed Beauty) but he spares her and orders the rest of the gorillas and Tarzan to move out. Porter and Clayton arrive back at the wrecked camp and Jane tells them everything that’s happened.
But then one day Tarzan arrives at the camp to see sailors dismantling the site and saying things like “Get it movin’ ye bilge rats!”
Jane explains that the boat has arrived to take them back to England and she asks Tarzan to come with them. Tarzan instead begs Jane to stay with him in the jungle and you can see she’s really torn. On the one hand, there’s her entire life, friends and family back in England. On the other hand there’s…
Tormented by the thought of not having those abs to wash her clothes on (this is pre-washing machine, don’t forget) she runs off in tears. Well, Clayton may be a poor excuse for a Disney villain but he’s still mastered emotional manipulation 101 so he tells Tarzan that if he can lead them to the gorillas, Jane can stay. Tarzan agrees, and Clayton tells one of the sailors, Snipes, to round up some men.
Tarzan asks Terk to distract Kerchak long enough for Jane and the other humans to visit the gorillas and at first she’s dead against it. Terk is hurt because Tarzan’s been ignoring her since Jane arrived, but you get the feeling that it’s not because Terk is in love with Tarzan or anything. It’s more of a “stupid girl stole my best buddy” kinda thing which I really like. Tarzan finally convinces Terk by asking her as a friend and making a face like a lolcat.
Cut to Terk, dressed in Jane’s clothes, and Tantor, with his trunk made up to look like Porter, being chased through the jungle by a furious Kerchak. I like Kerchak too much to believe that he’d be such a dumbass as to actually think that humans typically have elephants coming out of their asses, so I’m just gonna go ahead and assume that he knows it’s them and is going to beat the shit out of them for for thinking he’d fall for that.
Tarzan takes Jane, Porter and Clayton to the gorillas nesting grounds and after a little trepidation, the gorillas warm to Jane. Jane asks Tarzan to teach her some gorilla, and they make “Ooo oo chee” noises at each other for a bit. It should be a sweet scene, but I can’t really enjoy it because it triggers flashbacks to those damn Monkey Kombat levels from Monkey Island 4.
But the tranquil is broken when Kerchak arrives and sees Clayton’s gun and goes himshit insane. Tarzan wrestles Kerchak to the ground to allow Jane, Porter and Clayton to escape and actually ends up wounding Kerchak. Ashamed at what he’s done, Tarzan runs off into the forest. Kala finds him, and takes him to where she first found him all those years ago.
Tarzan explores the treehouse his parents built, now overgrown with vines ivy. He smells the blanket that he was wrapped in as a child and finds a picture of his parents on the floor.
Kala tells him that she just wants him to be happy, no matter what he decides. She waits outside, and when Tarzan emerges from the house, he’s wearing one of his father’s suits (still in pretty good condition, he just had to shake some bones out of the sleeves). Tarzan tells her that she will always be his mother, and leaves for the ship.
Tarzan boards the ship and Jane tells him that everyone will want to meet him, including Darwin and Kipling. Which, considering this movie is probably set in around 1890 would be a very interesting meeting indeed.
But when they board the ship, Clayton’s staged a mutiny and Tarzan, Jane, Porter and the Captain are thrown in the hold and whoah whoah whoah whoah…
Clayton, you moronic sack of shit. Let’s go through the plan here, shall we? You capture the gorillas. You take them back to England and sell them for £300 pound a head. What part of your plan gives you immunity from prosecution for hi-jacking a fucking ship? I’m pretty sure they’re still hanging people for that in this time period. So what’s the back up plan? You just become a pirate, roaming the African coast looking for plunder with your crew of trained gorilla buccaneers?
Which sounds fucking awesome, yes, go do that.
Anyway, Tarzan tries to fight them off but he’s not so hot at climbing when he’s wearing shoes and he gets captured. He gives a roar so loud that Tantor and Terk hear him back on land. Terk is bitter that Tarzan left her but Tantor says “I’m sick of your emotional constipation” and insists they go save Tarzan. Tantor and Terk leap into the ocean and swim towards the ship, with Tantor using his trunk as a periscope.
Fuckin’ Tantor, man. Everything I think I know, he just turns upside down. He’s like the god of chaos. Or Stephen Fry.
Anyway, Tantor and Terk climb aboard, beat up some sailors and spring Tarzan and the rest from the hold. Clayton and his men attack the nesting grounds and Kerchak is caught in a net and about to get shot when Tarzan arrives, bringing all the creatures of the jungle with him to drive off the invaders wait just a damn minute here!
Tarzan frees Kerchak who says in disbelief “You came back?” and Tarzan replies “I came home.” Jane and Tarzan save Kala from being carried off but then Clayton takes aim and shoots at both of them. Kerchak roars and lungs at Clayton who shoots him dead.
Furious, Tarzan pursues Clayton up into the forest canopy and manages to get his gun off him. Clayton mocks him saying “Go ahead. Shoot me. Be a man.” He hears a gunshot and thinks Tarzan pulled the trigger, but Tarzan just mimicked the sound of the gun to dick with Clayton and says “Not a man like you!” and smashes the gun to pieces. Because Tarzan knows a real man doesn’t need to use a gun. Not when he can beat you to death with his bare hands. Clayton lunges at Tarzan with a knife and gets entangled in some vines. Which leads us to probably one of the most infamous Disney villain deaths in the entire canon. Clayton slashes at the vines, unaware that one has wrapped itself around his neck so that when he falls the vine snaps his neck, thus becoming the first Disney villain to die by hanging.
The battle’s over, but Kerchak’s dying and Tarzan rushes to his side to hear his last words.
No, of course not. Kerchak asks Tarzan’s forgiveness, tells him to lead the troupe after he’s gone and finally calls him “my son”. Kerchak dies, and Tarzan assumes leadership of the gorillas.
Later, on the beach, Tarzan and Jane say their goodbyes. As the rowboat makes its way back to the ship however, Porter convinces Jane that she belongs with Tarzan and she swims back to him and they kiss on the beach. And the movie ends with a triumphant reprise of Two Worlds with Tarzan and Jane swinging through the jungle together with Tarzan giving the iconic “AAAAAAEEEEEAAAAAEAAAAA!” Funnily enough, that was not performed by Tony Goldwyn, but by BRIAN BLESSED, who the filmakers decided was much better at random shouting.
This movie has So much going for it; peErless animation, a seriously heavyweight cast, faNtastic music and a great story well tolD. It also improves vastly on the source material, turning Edgar Rice BurrougH’s badly written mishmash of sExist and racist tropes into an epic with reaL emotional heft and heart. It’s a beautiful, deePly rewarding film and honestly, if it wasn’t for the lacklustre villain I’d be Putting it near the top spot. This movie deserves a bigger folLowing and a bEtter reputAtion that it’S gotten to datE!
Well, that’s it for me. I’ll see you next in TIME AND LOCATION REDACTED. HAIL CROW!
FINAL SCORE: 78%
NEXT TIME: The day of reckoning has finally arrived as Mouse and Comrade Crow face off for control of the blog. And they’ll review Fantasia 2000 if they can squeeze it in.
NEXT UPDATE: 03 October 2013.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. The blog updates every second Thursday. Thanks for reading!