The Disney Renaissance of the ‘90s ushered in a new age of animation in a period of continuous commercial and critical hits. Timeless classics like Beauty and the Beast and the Lion King. As a guy born in the early ‘90s, these are films I grew up on, and grew to love. Even today, Disney’s miraculous line of comebacks are far more than cartoons and childish moral lectures. They’re richly deep and powerful films. Tarzan was released in 1999 and is usually considered to be the last of the revival, but does it stack up against its predecessors?
The movie follows the eponymous ape-man’s journey from childhood to manhood as he struggles both to earn the recognition of his simian tribe’s gruff leader Kerchak and figure out just why he’s so different. The first half hour of the film is awesome. It sets the whole story up. Two families from two different worlds lose their child to a sabertooth, gorilla adopts the human child, father doesn’t approve, and right from the start of the film you’ve got Phil Collins belting out a myriad of memorable tracks. It’s the perfect intro. The problem with the film is that it’s plot length is completely disproportionate to the amount of time given to its thirty-minute opening. The obvious love interest Jane eventually shows up with a crew of standard Disney characterizations, i.e. a clumsy father and a macho jerk, but this is halfway through the movie’s eighty minutes. Jane is played by Minnie Driver, whose charmingly cute and flirtatious performance is belittled by the fact that her romance with Tarzan materializes out of nowhere. It’s a shame because, similar to Belle and her Beast, Driver plays the role really well and actually makes you care. But again, problem is there’s no room for development and the moment they meet to the moment they’re swinging through the trees in love montages spans all but ten to fifteen minutes. From there the movie persists in a similar pace with an ending that shouldn’t surprise any Disney follower.
Tarzan doesn’t get many marks in the way of originality either. It’s essentially Beauty and the Beast and Lion King thrown together, and ideologically speaking, as with virtually every other Disney film prior, it’s steeped heavily in classical American values, including its assumption about male domination in the family unit. After all, in the end Jane gives up her world to be in Tarzan’s, even adapting his entire lifestyle, swinging through the trees as her newly wedded husband smashes his chest in a primal show of supremacy.
But enough about that. How does the film look and sound? Like standard Disney magic, that’s how. Phil Collins provides an absolute epic of an album, endowing much of the film with poignancy in tracks like ‘Son of Man’, ‘Strangers Like Me’, and of course the Oscar-winning ‘You’ll Be in My Heart’. Your ears will be pleased. So will your eyes. The use of deep focus animation makes Tarzan’s forests as visually memorable as the ball-room scene was in Beauty. It’s a movie that captures your senses right from the get-go and refuses to release them until it’s final moments.
Ultimately, the film hits all the same right notes its predecessors of the so-called Renaissance hit. As an eight year old, I thought it was great back when it came out in 1999. It’s an emotionally-charged, charmingly funny, visually stunning epic… with Phil Collins. Yeah, I don’t have to color-coat that part. Phil Collins does the music. It’s f***ing awesome. It’s the end of an era in animation, but it sure as hell signals that ending with a bang… or perhaps a chest pump.