With the last few animated features, Disney was trying to shed its kid-flick image and appeal to a broader, more mature audience. Tarzan was no exception to that effort.
Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic novel Tarzan of the Apes, this beautifully animated film is one of Disney’s more faithful adaptations. The film explores big themes like identity and family — both biological and the ones we create for ourselves. Tarzan spends much of the film intimately aware of the differences between himself and the ape family who adopted him after he was orphaned in the jungle. His journey of self-discovery is truly touching and the film packs a pretty good emotional punch at points. His efforts to please pack leader Kerchak provide interesting tension throughout the story, as well as a nice, film-long subplot while Tarzan befriends Jane and her father, and learns more about who he really is.
The characters are quite likeable. You really feel for Kala (voiced beautifully by Glenn Close) and her journey — she is the ape who takes Tarzan in after her baby’s life is claimed by a menacing leopard. Minnie Driver brings a certain sass and independence to Jane that is a delight to watch. And it’s refreshing to see a female lead who has more on her mind than getting married.
Attempts to broaden appeal may seem odd for a company just coming off a string of the unparalleled success Disney enjoyed during the animation renaissance, but the efforts were nonetheless there. Toward the end of the 1990s, Disney was encountering more competition than ever before. Pixar had released its first feature, Toy Story, in 1995, and by the end of the decade would add A Bug’s Life (1998) and Toy Story 2 (1999) to its roster. And Dreamworks, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new studio which was launched in 1994, hit the ground running with 1998’s Antz and The Prince of Egypt.
Disney took a step back from its musical movie formula and hired musician Phil Collins to pen all of the songs. It’s definitely one of the more memorable soundtracks Disney has had and the cohesion a single songwriter can bring to a project allows the story and songs to blend well together — “You’ll Be in My Heart” is a great example of this. The songs allow the plot to advance without the characters having to stand and sing anything (although Kala does sing a part of “You’ll Be in My Heart”). Collins spent four years on the project, aware of the high stakes involved. “I know what those songs have meant to me in other films,” he told the LA Times, “and the effect they’ve had on my kids, and I didn’t know if I’d be capable of the same thing.” He had nothing to worry about, though, as “You’ll Be in My Heart” spent 19 weeks at the top of the adult contemporary charts, peaked at No. 21 on Billboard’s top 100 and nabbed Collins an Oscar for Best Original Song.
Technically, there was some impressive work behind the scenes in blending Tarzan’s hand-drawn character with some impressive 3D computer-generated backgrounds. The process was named “Deep Canvas” because it essentially allowed traditional animators to work with hand-drawn characters with a 3D environment. Story board artists set up the shot first, allowing computer models to generate camera movement through the jungle, which is all computer-drawn. Once the camera movements are defined, the animator can draw their character over top of it more accurately and have them integrate with the environment more cleanly than in the past. The best example of this technique succeeding are the scenes where Tarzan is swinging and sliding through the jungle, a sequence for which animators also studied pro-skateboarders to get the movement of Tarzan’s body just right.
Deep Canvas differentiated Disney from previous computer animation efforts, like Hercules and The Great Mouse Detective because, in those films, the computer was used to animate specific elements of a scene (the Hydra, the clock tower gears, etc.) in pre-defined and less-than-immersive ways. Deep Canvas allowed animators to generate the entire jungle, and then drop Tarzan into it. The process is explained more visually here:
While The New York Times reviewer was initially skeptical Disney could break from the formula it had followed for over a decade, she declared Tarzan to be “sprightly and likable in ways that are hard to resist. The exultant agility of its jungle scenes makes it clear that an animated version of this story really is something new.” (We’ll put a pin in the fact that Disney itself visited similar subject matter just two years before with the Brenden Fraser-led, live-action farce George of the Jungle.) Tarzan opened to mostly positive reviews and a $34-million box office return its first weekend, paving the way for it to become the sixth-highest grossing film of 1999.
I have a bit of a soft spot for this film, and it’s definitely one of the ones Disney should be proud of — especially stacked up against what’s to come over the next few years.