Movie Review: Disney’s Tarzan (1999)



Known as the last of the classics from the Disney Renaissance, Tarzan was released June 18, 1999 as Disney’s 37th animated motion picture. It was the first Disney animated film to open in theaters at #1 since Pocahontas (1995) and the most expensive made until Treasure Planet (2002). Interestingly, it is also the only completed animated adaption of Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs and is perhaps the most successful of all the Tarzan adaptations.

Though incredibly expensive to make, Tarzan stands out as one of the greatest of all the Disney films not only because of its incredible animation, screenplay and stylization but also because of its the complicated message.

To be honest, I am not a huge fan of the original Tarzan novels. To me, a man growing up wild in the jungle isn’t as romantic as its seems. However, I think that Disney took a popularized story and changed it into something equal to the original novel. What made it so wonderful was the heart that Tarzan‘s creators put into its production, story, music, backgrounds and character design.


The original story, published first in 1914 through a series of magazine articles, also takes place in Africa but instead tells the story of John Clayton. He was adopted by the gorilla Kala, after his mother died of an illness and his father was killed by the ape leader Kerchak, and was named Tarzan or “white skin” in the ape language.

Subsequently, he adapts to his environment and struggles with his feelings of isolation. Rather than being a story of acceptance, family and love it instead played homage to the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin with themes specifically deriving from his theory of natural selection. Created in the heart of the earliest stages of film production, Burough’s Tarzan has been adapted and re-adapted into film over 200 times. What is it about this story that intrigued readers and watchers so intently? Most likely it was the introduction of something completely foreign and mysterious that caught Westerner’s attention. Almost like the horrifying creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Tarzan in his primal masculinity became a legend unto himself.


Since I saw Tarzan in theaters as a child, I have loved it just as adamantly as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Now that I am an adult, I think my admiration for the film and its production has changed, though my childhood love for its characters and story has not. I became interested in doing a review of this movie for several reasons, however the clincher was the release of the spectacular short video Duet by one of Tarzan‘s original character designers Glen Keane. Needless to say, I became VERY interested in Glen Keane’s other work and set off to learn everything I could about him.

It is a funny thing really because I have never particularly paid attention to the small details in character design and backgrounds until about two years ago when I saw Princess Mononoke (1997). What really intrigued me about Hayao Miyazaki’s epic masterpiece was how he personally overlooked the production of over 140,000 cels of his film (which he wrote, story boarded, and directed) of which he redrew about 80,000 himself. Anyway, my love for hand draw animation was set aflame and I have become fascinated with the entire process.

Tarzan begins with two contrasting couples raising their newly born children in the wilds of Africa: one a human couple, stranded by a terrible storm and the other native gorillas. Both though initially different are shown to have struggles, loss and intimate familial bonding. After Kala and Kerchak (gorillas) lost their baby to the female leopard Sabor, Kala follows the cries of child to the house built by Tarzan’s parents and finds both the remains of his parents and the infant alone in a makeshift cradle. She saves him from Sabor and adopts him as her son Tarzan, though Kerchak refuses to acknowledge him.

As he grows, Tarzan struggles with his differences from the other gorillas and resolves, after a close encounter with a herd of elephants and Kerchak’s scathing reproach, to do everything he can to become stronger and be accepted by his family. By the time he is twenty years old, he has learned to adapt to his environment remarkably well even to the point where he kills Sabor, saving Kerchak and protecting his family.

His whole world changes however when a group of humans wanders into the jungles and he saves one of them, Jane Porter, from a group of angry group of baboons. Against Kerchak’s orders, he continues to interact with them, learning English, about the outside world and falls in love with Jane.

When it becomes apparent that they, specifically Jane, would be leaving back for England, Clayton convinces Tarzan to lead them to his family though he knows it would endanger them and put his family at risk. Once he saves them from Kerchak’s wrath Kala takes Tarzan back to the house where she found him and he decides to leave with Jane and the others for England. However, it turns sour when Clayton reveals his plans to capture the gorillas and sell them on the black market. Once Tarzan saves his family he is given charge when Kerchak dies from a gunshot wound. In the end Jane and her father stay with him and his pack and the film finishes showing all of them as they have adapted to their surroundings.


I said before that I believe that this film is equal to the original novel. The defining reason why is because of its depth and emotionality, with its heavy emphasis on family and self-perception. At its heart, it strives to answer Tarzan’s emotional question to Kerchak after he discovers that there are others like him: “Why are you threatened by anyone different than you?”. It seems strange to see Tarzan seen as inferior by his family when in reality gorillas are perceived as more primitive by human beings.

Another essential component that made this movie unique was the music done by Phil Collins. It is rather strange that they chose a contemporary artist to do almost all of its songs, yet it fit Tarzan‘s atmosphere nicely. I liked how well he worked with its instrumental score, written by Mark Mancina, and the feeling he put into each of the song’s creation.

What is also interesting about this film is how little dialogue there is compared to other Disney classics. It takes its time to show the audience intricate scenes of the jungle and its action scenes don’t rely heavily on unneeded lines. In other words, the movie speaks for itself in its design and execution.


In the film’s production, Disney animators and story boarders went to Africa and took thousands of pictures of the jungle’s vegetation, animals and scenery in order to capture the true essence of Tarzan’s world. To ensure this, they developed a film technique “Deep canvas”, where those who designed the backgrounds painted 3D images on a computer {Like painting a whole branch rather than just one visible side} which allowed them to show intricate scenes like Tarzan and Jane’s flight from the baboons.

When I watched it several weeks ago, I was awed by the beautiful painted backgrounds I had never had the mind to study. Honestly, it would be impossible to accomplish in a live-action film what they were able to in this movie. As the famous film critic Roger Ebert put it, “It has scenes that move through space with a freedom undreamed of in older animated films, and unattainable by any live-action process.” That is what is so amazing about animation; it allows us to take our dreams and put them in a moving, artistic medium. How else would we be able to have movies like The Little Mermaid (1989) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)?

tarzan-tarzan-sabor-fight art_01

Glen Keane, who I mentioned earlier as my inspiration for this review, was in charge of Tarzan’s adult design and conception. He insisted on using Disney’s studio in France in order, with their superior knowledge of the human body (specifically the muscular system), to capture a definitive recreation of Tarzan. This decision is probably why Tarzan is one of the most memorable characters in animated history, at least for me.

His design is definitely stunning and its shows that creating an animated film on Tarzan‘s level is a complicated and rigorous process. I look at it this way; it is like taking Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (whose knowledge of the human body and the muscular system was EXTRAORDINARY) and redrawing it thousands of times in multiple angles and perspectives. Characters like the gorillas and various other animals were given the same attention by designers in The Lion King (1994), who had brought in live lions to the studio.

Another interesting thing to note is the shape of the character’s eyes, enlarged in order to emphasize emotions and expressions {Not unlike techniques incorporated by the Japanese}. tarzan_o13

Like in most of my favorite movies, Tarzan and Jane’s romance is partly why I love this film. I like simple romances. More accurately, I like seeing the purity and joy that comes when two people truly love one another. Unlike in the original novel, Tarzan and Jane were given the chance to be together. What made their relationship so special is hard to explain. To put it simply, it was as if two kindred spirits, lost in their own way and unable to truly express themselves, were brought together and freed. In other words, they complimented one another.

Without question my favorite scene is “Strangers Like Me” as it shows how they slowly drew closer to one another. Without any dialogue, it captured their growth together and how their worlds opened as their relationship progressed. Though Jane had many things to show and teach Tarzan, that didn’t mean that he couldn’t do the same for her. In one specific clip, Tarzan gently pushed her to swing on a vine, the exhilaration and freedom she felt in letting go and the blossoming love, evident since their first encounter, between them as they swung closer and closer together. I always like to think that true love isn’t all that complicated or dramatic. It simply is.


I truly admire those who created this film and wish more like it could have been made. It is also tragic that not many recognize Tarzan as the masterpiece it is. This film is so memorable for its complex design, conception and most importantly its heart. It isn’t easy capturing this essential particle in film making. In fact it is almost impossible to explain what it is, though it is obvious when it is there.

I think when artists begin to love their work that is when true art is born. It is because of its heart and depth that I have loved this film for so long. Hopefully, Tarzan will never be forgotten. It would be tragic if it was.



1.[Tarzan takes Clayton’s gun and aims it at him]

Clayton: Go ahead. Shoot me.


Clayton: Be a man.

[a shot is heard, but not from the gun; it’s Tarzan mimicking a gunshot]

Tarzan: Not a man like you!

2. Jane Porter: Oh, my goodness! Daddy, I was walking. There was… was a little baby, little baby monkey, and I drew a picture!

Professor Porter: Yes, go on.

Jane Porter: Suddenly, the monkey starts crying.

Professor Porter: Oh, poor thing.

Jane Porter: But, I turn around and there’s a whole FLEET OF THEM. An ARMY of monkeys! A huge tree full of monkeys, screaming at me!

[imitates a monkey screaming at him]

Professor Porter: [laughing at her] She’s very good at this!

Jane Porter: Terrified! I was terrified! Suddenly, I was swinging, on a vine, in the air! Swinging, in the air!

Professor Porter: With the monkeys!

Jane Porter: I was in the air! And then, I was all surrounded!

Professor Porter: What did you do?

Jane Porter: And, daddy! They took my boot!

Professor Porter: Your boot- those are the ones I bought you.

Jane Porter: And I was SAVED. I was saved by a flying, wild man in a loincloth.

Professor Porter: Loincloth? Good lord.

Clayton: What is she talking about?

Professor Porter: I have no idea. She takes after her mother, you know. She came up with stories like that. Not about men in loincloths of course.



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