The foundling raised by animals in the wilderness is an immemorial idea. A couple weeks ago I reviewed a movie about one of the most famous of these foundlings: Mowgli, raised by wolves in the jungle. Today I will review another movie, this one about another foundling of almost equal fame: Tarzan.
Disney released its animated version of Tarzan in 1999, on the dying wave of the Disney Renaissance. After the wave crashed, Disney languished in cheap, lusterless sequels for a decade; as it crested, it released celebrated films such as Aladdin and The Lion King. In between, Disney released more experimental, and now largely forgotten, films – Atlantis, Treasure Planet, and, of course, Tarzan.
Tarzan is the least experimental of the three. It’s a departure from classic fairy tales, but still fantasy, unlike the sci-fi incursions Atlantis and Treasure Planet. The Disney formula of orphaned hero, boy-meets-girl, and animal sidekicks is intact. Variations are evident, however. Tarzan is an unlikely hero, his character made up of two divergent halves – one the epitome of physical strength and skill, the other naive and imitative in the most childlike way. The lively Jane, with her scientific interest and artistic bent, is an unusual heroine, neither too timid to slap Tarzan nor too proud to demand his help.
The music follows a similar pattern. Tarzan features the classic Disney spate of songs, hurrying the story along and encapsulating character motivations. Phil Collins, writing the songs, provides a departure of style. The lyrics are written from the viewpoint of various characters but sung by one outside singer – a technique curiously reminiscent of the songs in Toy Story. The music may well be the highest-quality element in the movie, although the stellar animation of Tarzan’s physical agility and ape-like mannerisms comes close.
Tarzan is strongest in its lighthearted moments; when the movie wants to be entertaining, it is. It stumbles when it tries to be dramatic. Tarzan’s adoption by the gorillas, and Clayton’s trickery, are competent and more. But outside of these and a few other moments, the drama fails to be convincing.
A great deal of this failure springs from Clayton, who manages to be, as the story’s villain, both over-the-top and underachieving. He is so obviously bad you wonder how Jane and her father ever got mixed up with him in the first place. On the other hand, his ambitions aren’t scary, or even particularly impressive. He wants to capture some gorillas alive! Only two of whom we have, as the audience, any reason to care about anyway! Remember when Disney villains plotted spectacular revenge and to take over kingdoms and control powerful magic and fun things like that?
The film is also unconvincing in answering the question it sets itself regarding Tarzan’s nature and place in the world. It comes too quickly, with too little reflection and reckoning. This disappoints me because the question was so interesting. It is, however, the movie’s lesser failure.
Despite the film’s stumbles, Tarzan is a fun romp with two or three musical numbers that are good almost to the point of being addictive. Unlike Tangled and Beauty and the Beast, it may not stand up to a thousand viewings, but it is certainly worth at least one.
Postscript: About that music … It’s been in my head.
Now it can be in yours.