Who knew that you could surf on tree branches?
Tarzan is an orphan when gorilla Kala finds him in an abandoned tree-house. After a frightening action sequence involving a leopard, Kala tries to convince alpha-gorilla-leader Kerchak to let him into the gorilla family. Kerchak reluctantly allows for it, but responds by saying that since he is different, he is not his son. Then, we finally have a protagonist growing up done right. As a baby, he is passionately cared for by his gorilla mother. As a child, he tries to fit in with the other gorillas and win over Kerchak’s approval. And as an adult, he is finally getting into the swing of things.
Tarzan avoids direct comparisons to Disney’s best by not doing the whole singing and dancing thing with its characters. Instead, Phil Collins does all the singing! …Was anybody excited when I said that? Don’t get me wrong, I like Phil Collins and his music, but it doesn’t have the effect that I’m sure a lot of people will want in terms of music from Disney’s featured animated films. With that said, could you imagine Tarzan singing and dancing? Eh, maybe it was a good decision to take this direction, but it definitely contributes to the loss of that fairytale feel which is never compensated for. This is partially redeemed by a surprisingly energetic animation, and it really needed to be strong in order for Tarzan’s movement in the trees to be believable. In this regard, Tarzan does not disappoint.
You can’t help but to think that Tarzan is whatever the film needed him to be: a good son to Kala, a good heir to Kerchak, and a good romantic interest of Jane. He does everything right, in a pretty boring way. Unlike Mulan who had something new to her as a Disney princess, Tarzan is a generically, good prince, uh, I mean, Disney male protagonist. Tarzan is redeemed by the pleasantly fiery Jane, who barely lost my vote for most underrated Disney princess, uh, I mean, Disney female protagonist. Jane is a damsel in distress who doesn’t really want to be saved, but isn’t really independent enough to always justify her attitude. She is artsy, she is a day-dreamer, and she is animated very well. I like Jane a lot. This can also be said of Terk who I find innocently funny and the nervous but intelligent Tantor who is brave only when it matters most. These compliments end, however, in regards to Kala, Kerchak, and the villain.
Bringing it all together
Tarzan was ambitious in a similar way Aladdin was, but without as much chemistry between the hero and the heroine. While Tarzan obviously has feelings for her, which would make sense since he was surrounded by monkeys all his life, Jane seems to see him as more of a friend until, Disney is like: well, everyone is expecting a love story in this one, so… yeah, Jane will fall in love with Tarzan, sure. I mean, I can kind of see the romance developing, but it would be a stretch to say that Jane is going to ditch human society for Tarzan by the end. And not to be overly critical, but the whole “you aren’t my son” thing was a little weird for me because Kerchak and Kala don’t act like they are husband and wife… they had a baby together, but Kerchak almost never interacts with Kala in any meaningful way afterwards. To make them so distant was definitely a bad decision, but let’s talk about the good stuff Tarzan has to offer. Like Aladdin, Tarzan is definitely for the boys. There is a lot of action, gun-fire, tree-surfing, vine-swinging, and the animation holds up to make all this entertaining. And when you are drawing comparisons to a classic like Aladdin, then you know you’re doing something right.
Tarzan is about… okay, I’m going to talk about the one that’s less obvious—Tarzan is about friendship. You never feel like Terk and Tantor are simply Tarzan’s sidekicks, but rather, his true friends. They show them growing up together, and in the end where it seems like Tarzan may have abandoned his childhood buddies, they still put their confidence with Tarzan and rescue him. Yeah, the love story was blah, the ending with Kerchak felt forced, and the mother-son relationship isn’t all too interesting, but it was really awesome to see Disney focus on something like this for once with the extra time it gained from not doing the whole Broadway musical sort of thing.
I am going to admit that it’s hard for me to put Tarzan, one of two Disney renaissance movies that don’t really feel like it belongs in the same category, so high up on this list. However, having the typical Disney songs can only get you so far up my grading scale and what Tarzan offers is a tale of friendship. Disney carries a lot of other baggage it felt obliged to bring along, such as a message about fitting in and a love story, and had it focused more about friendship, then this could have been a really moving picture. Nonetheless, I give Disney major props for taking a unique direction and it’s just so uplifting for Disney to take its side-characters seriously again.