Tarzan. Dir. Kevin Lima, Chris Buck. Disney. 1999.

Tarzan-Two Worlds

Tarzan is best characterised by the title of the film’s opening song Two Worlds, sang by Phil Collins. This is the story of flora and fauna, represented by gorillas, colliding with mankind in Disney’s 1999 classic.

The film sees an orphaned human baby in Africa adopted into an ape family by a Gorilla mother. The film takes on a bildungsroman plotline as we follow Tarzan striving to grow and be accepted by his Ape troop and his friendship with a tom boy gorilla called Turk and a melodramatic elephant called Tantor.  The audience is privy to Tarzans coming of age moment when he kills the leopardess Sabor who has terrorised the troop since before Tarzan’s birth and is the one responsible for his parents’ deaths.

From this point in the film we see the arrival of mankind in the form of ape-loving love interest Jane and her eccentric father Porter, with their guide Clayton who has an ulterior motive to capture apes. The humans’ arrival forces Tarzan to question his belonging in the world around him. When Clayton makes his move to enslave the Gorillas however, Tarzan’s place in the world becomes ape-solutely clear to him.

Where this film succeeds beyond what we have seen in previous Tarzan films is in its animation, which allows for so much more scope in animal exploration as Thomas Schumacher, president of feature animation for Disney, articulates; ‘Here is a book that cries out to be animated. Yet we’re the first filmmakers to have ever taken Tarzan from page to screen and presented the character as Burroughs intended.’[1] Burroughs here is nit correctly true, due to an animated cartoon series called Tarzan Lord of the Jungle was shown on Saturday morning TV in the 1970’s. Yet, despite this oversight you understand his sentiments this is the first animation which recognises its ability to present Tarzan is such a way. The 1970’s cartoon is impressive for it age, but pales in comparison to Disney’s Tarzan in nearly all aspects of animation and most importantly, in terms of animal-human relations, the ability of the animators to place much more realistic expressions on their characters and depth of scenery and how the characters interact with it. In choosing animation Disney can express Tarzan and the animal kingdom he exists within with great exuberance and vividness. Bonnie Arnold, producer, enunciates these achievements saying, ‘I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a realistic portrayal of Tarzan’s relationship with his ape family.’[2] Indeed due to animation we see Tarzan communicate with these animals beyond that which live action could achieve. With speech, facial expressions and movements we see a depth in these relationships Tarzan fans hadn’t been able to view before. It allows for total control of the animals and when back dropped against the stunning scenery crafted using Disney’s pioneering deep canvas animating tool, the effect is a stunning visual success, which matches and in some areas surpasses what Disney had produced prior in animating animals, like The Lion King and Pocahontas.

It is with confidence that this movie is created using deep canvas that gives Bonnie Arnold the confidence to make her bold claim. Because of advancements in technology, the scenery designers now had a platform where they could create the environment in 3D. So in the scenes where we see Tarzan skimming through the trees twisting and turning through this environment, the environment stays with him, so when he does a flip onto another angle of a tree, the trees design is authentic to the other side, due to its 3D painting. Because of this Arnold can make the claim this is the most realistic edition of Tarzan the fictional character, of the character being true to the original due to the stunts their animated Tarzan can make in comparison to a live action character, but can still be back dropped by a stunning interactive 3D background.

This allows for the audience to see animals interacting with their environment in a truly authentic way despite the film being animated. In pre-production parts of the crew visited Africa to get an authentic feel for the backdrop of the movie and how the animals interacted with it. Doug Ball, Artistic Supervisor, reminisces how he used 250 rolls of film on this trip in an effort to find anything that could be used for a stimulus in film production. One of these pictures is the comparison picture for Jane on the left.[3] Here we see how the animating team took a piece of Africa and seamlessly adapted it to animation imbuing it with a richness and liveliness we have come to expect from Disney. This does two things that helps present the animals in the film so accurately. One, the film’s stunning backdrop has all been inspired by the wilds it is representing, the people responsible for it lived and breathed in these jungles to truly experience what they wanted to share with their audience. Furthermore it allows for total interaction, again highlighted by Jane, which would be a struggle to capture so effortlessly in live action. So when we watch this film, despite it being animated, we are being treated to an accurate portrayal of the wilds of Africa stunningly explored using deep canvas.

But, this creates problems as yes the film presents the wilds of Africa in pristine conditions yet fails to allude to the presence of Western humans in Africa before the movie. They seem to portray unsure on how to portray the human presence in Africa. When Jane and her party arrives, the situation is painted as the hammer drop moment of Animals meeting humans. Yet Kerchack at the adoption of Tarzan questions if the rest of them are all gone. By the rest he means humans. Kerchack seems weary of the threat of humans, seemingly a weariness built on prior experience. Where is this experience of human’s destructive presence in the films scenery and background. We see no expression of the colonial encounters that lie beneath the Tarzan story and damage they caused to Africa. So in theory, Tarzan does as Ball suggests present an environment where apes really came from, but not one accurate of the era they place it in, after there had been years of Western human contact in Africa and damaging effect that would naturally bring to the wilds.

The producers were equally set on achieving this same likeness of the setting in their projections of the apes in this film. It was this reason they spent time in Uganda studying a troop of 13 silver back gorillas in the Impenetrable forest. Glen Keane, supervising animator for Tarzan, spoke on how this visit let him come away with a ‘true appreciation of Tarzan and where he comes from.’[4] In doing that it also grants Keane a grasp of what Ape life was about and we see this reflected in the film. Yet we must take these claims with a pinch of salt. Keane’s boasting in the publicity for the film is understandable but we must question how much one can learn from two weeks watching gorillas, when zoologists have been researching them for lifetimes and wouldn’t boast of a true understanding of gorillas.

We see how this trip inspired Keane and gave him the basis for ideas and scenes that made the movie. He spoke of his surprise that he didn’t encounter ‘mean monstrous grr gorillas,’ but instead an intimate troop of gorillas all ‘sitting around in a relaxed family like setting.’[5] We see how his sketch drawn during his visit to Uganda is reflected in this still from the movie on the right.  We see how empirical understanding of the gorillas and their lives is translated to the screen to give an honest representation of their lives.

This is important for the role of the animals in the film because when we watch the apes in Tarzan we are viewing a true depiction of how apes live and breathe. Of course we have to factor out some of the characteristics and abilities placed upon them for the plot’s sake. The ability to talk to humans is one that is needed to further the charm of this film, one which makes it such a favourite of children and adults alike. Yet the aww factor reserved for Kala’s adoption of Tarzan need not be expressed for the romanticism of this film alone. Apes have been known to ‘adopt’ human children, so this scene is not to be dismissed out of hand as false. This scene where Kala reaches out for and then protects Tarzan may not have played out dissimilarly in real life. This highlights the altruistic nature of apes is not dissimilar to ours.

Furthermore the introduction of the adult humans in the second half of the film, when we remove the aspect of Tarzan, again reflects that of real life. The curiosity of Turk and her friends at the humans campsite, is certainly one reflective of most animals when presented with something foreign, played out by the song Trashing the Camp. Yes we have to look beyond the great song, which Phil Collins reflects upon, ‘it seemed the most simple, but turned out to be the most difficult of them all.’[6] But the majority of apes would instinctively interact with human item having once overcome their original fears showing their natural curiosity. Finally Kerchak’s fierceness when protecting his charges is reflective of any troop leader’s behaviour in moments of danger, ‘as Silverbacks will charge anything that threatens them or their group.’[7] What this means is this film’s animal presence, beyond the obvious anthropomorphising needed for the film’s plot, is an accurate and carefully presented view of these majestic animals as possibly can be in an animated children’s film.

Yet when the film enters its most fantastical moments in relation to the animals’ personification, the animation allows the film to become a great example of the importance of strong friendship, no doubt necessary teaching for children. Turk’s and Tantor’s rapport is one such strand of the film where we see this. For example in the scenes where they distract Kerchak for Tarzan are both comedic while displaying devotion and humility for their friend. This is seen again from these two characters in the rescuing of Tarzan from the slaver’s ship. Here anthropomorphism is needed to add depth, which allows for the ability of the audience to empathise with these characters. We see in this friendship the same traits we would like to think we display ourselves in our friendships; courage, devotion and the willingness to go above and beyond. Thus this friendship takes the animals beyond that of base comedic value but also as role-models for the watching audience.

Furthermore because of the film’s positive reflection of animals it argues for the protection of animals over using them as a resource for western prizes. After watching the film and being enchanted by the various animal characters you would think this would be a natural viewpoint. But the diminishing species of animals on earth, many due to damage from humans, paints a different picture. This film therefore has an important part to play in reinforcing in the adults of tomorrow, and today, the imperative need for humans to reverse the crippling effect we are having on the natural world as more and more species slip into extinction every day.

The film reinforces this concept when viewed with the 1999 film Instinct starring Anthony Hopkins. Both films feature humans who when faced with a conflict between apes and humans side with apes due to their comradeship with animals over humans. Tarzan and Ethan Powell (Hopkins character), both build up a sense of family with the apes illustrating to us the relationships we can build with these animals. It also highlights the respect we should show to these animals and have no right to capture, kill or destroy their habitats for material gain. Finally, both films shun the Western commodity greed by trying to highlight the worth and value of these tremendous creatures. Tarzan certainly achieves this as Tarzan’s ape family is presented as loving and caring, not perhaps the perfect nuclear family but one nonetheless anyone would like to be part of.

Bibliography/ Suggested Reading

Kevin. Lima & Chris. Buck, Tarzan, Walt Disney Pictures, 1999

Jon TurteltaubInstinct, Buena Vista Pictures, 1999

World Animal Foundation, Gorilla Fact Sheet, http://www.worldanimalfoundation.net/f/gorilla.pdf (accessed 24/11/15).

Green, Howard (1999). The Tarzan Chronicles. New York: Hyperion

Youtube, The Making of Tarzan- Part 1 of 3, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drOxNNGwop4 (accessed 24/11/15).

Youtube, The Making of Tarzan- Part 2 of 3, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5DLgwb-TsM (accessed 24/11/15).

Youtube, The Making of Tarzan- Part 3 of 3, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wm0zcjffbkY(accessed 24/11/15).

Youtube, Walt Disney’s ‘Tarzan Soundtrack,’ https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7FE43190CD86C300, (accessed 24/11/15).

1 Green, Howard (1999). The Tarzan Chronicles. New York: Hyperion.

[2] Youtube, The Making of Tarzan- Part 1 of 3, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drOxNNGwop4 (accessed 24/11/15).

[3] Youtube, The Making of Tarzan- Part 1 of 3, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drOxNNGwop4 (accessed 24/11/15).

[4] Youtube, The Making of Tarzan- Part 1 of 3, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drOxNNGwop4 (accessed 24/11/15).

[5] Youtube, The Making of Tarzan- Part 1 of 3, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drOxNNGwop4 (accessed 24/11/15).

[6] Youtube, The Making of Tarzan- Part 2 of 3, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5DLgwb-TsM (accessed 24/11/15).

[7] World Animal Foundation, Gorilla Fact Sheet, http://www.worldanimalfoundation.net/f/gorilla.pdf (accessed 24/11/15).