A Decade of Disney: Tarzan (1999)

Virginia: Hello and welcome to the final installment of our Decade of Disney feature on the Renaissance. Today we’ll be discussing 1999’s Tarzan. As per usual for the House of Mouse, Tarzan is loosely based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan novel, Tarzan of the Apes. Some changes are made to the story to fit into the Disney formula, such as making Clayton a villain and removing his initial romantic connection to Jane. However, other adjustments, such as changing Jane’s appearance and nationality and making Sabor a cheetah rather than a lioness, were more likely creative decisions for aesthetic purposes. I really love Tarzan, and I think it’s one of Disney’s most visually gorgeous movies. For this film, the artists pioneered the studio’s deep-canvas method to show the jungle’s breathtaking scenery. Fan-favorite Disney artist Glen Keane also succeeds with flying colors in creating a believable-but-still-stylized muscle man in Tarzan. The story and character arcs are mostly satisfying too. I also love the songs by Phil Collins and score by Mike Mancina. What do you think of Tarzan, Munir?

Munir: I have to agree with you. Tarzan ended the Renaissance on a very high note. From its gorgeous and fluid animation to its beautiful score, Tarzan is a very strong film. It’s also worth noting that it was the last Disney animated film to win an Oscar (for best song) until Frozen in 2014. 1999 was a very competitive and significant year for animation; Warner Bros. released the now-classic The Iron Giant and Pixar scored big with Toy Story 2. The animation landscape was changing with both DreamWorks Animation and Pixar becoming big competitors to Disney Animation, and the CGI technique was becoming the rule rather than the exception. The next decade would be hard for WDAS, but at least with Tarzan, it seemed that everything was still okay. I’d also like to mention that Tarzan is different from the other Renaissance films because the characters don’t sing and all the songs are performed by Collins. It’s something that could’ve been jarring and weird, but the film pulls it off very well, and it doesn’t detract from the experience. The same thing was used later in Brother Bear, but with much less success.


V: 1999 is one of the best years in animation history; I agree with you there. I also agree that, while the songs in Tarzan are exemplary, I have mixed feelings on those in Brother Bear. In Tarzan, they’re almost all beautiful songs that fit the tone of a given scene and, possibly even more importantly, they push the story and characters forward. “Son of Man” and “Strangers Like Me” are two of the film’s best scenes, and I love how they progress Tarzan as a character. “Trashing the Camp” is my definite least favorite, but I don’t hate it. One thing that does bother me about this film is the character of Kerchak. Again, in order to Disney-fy the Tarzan story, Kerchak is made into a father figure whose approval the human boy yearns for throughout the film. This idea is fine in concept, but I think it feels forced in the movie. Kerchak doesn’t accept Tarzan or try to make amends until he’s literally dying, and from a conflict that Tarzan unintentionally caused. What do you think?

M: Before I answer your question, I agree with the songs’ quality. I also like “Two Worlds” and how it starts the film and tells us everything we need to know. It’s equally soaring and heartfelt in the right moments. “You’ll Be In My Heart” is also good, but I prefer the short film version where Kala sings the beginning to the end credits version. I think the first one is more affecting. Now, regarding Kerchak, I’m not bothered too much about his relationship with Tarzan. I feel like, for once, the stronger connection is between mother and son (a rarity in Disney films). I’m more invested in Kala and Tarzan’s relationship. While I do think that calling Tarzan his son at the end feels a little bit forced, I know why Kerchak is the way he is. I may not like him, but I understand. He lost his son, and Kala brought one that, first, is totally different from them, and second, can be a potential alpha male and competitor. Kerchak’s actions were misguided, but I think his heart was in the right place. He wants to protect his own, and Tarzan is a stranger and a possible menace. Only at the end, he realizes he was part of his family all along and the only one that can protect the rest of the pack. It’s funny because I always think of the moment were Tarzan kills Sabor and saves Kerchak; it seems that they’re finally going to bond, but of course, the humans arrive, and everything gets complicated. Whenever I see the film, I wonder how their relationship would’ve been had the other humans never arrived. Of course, we wouldn’t have the movie, but still, I wonder.


V: That’s an interesting point, and you may be right that Kerchak would have accepted him then without Jane and co.’s arrival. I just think it’s odd though. After all, Tarzan is a grown man by this point, so it’s been 18+ years since Kala adopted him. It’s weird for Kerchak to take so long that Tarzan has lived through his entire childhood by that point. I agree with you that Kala’s relationship with Tarzan is much better, and honestly, for me, one of the best parts of the film. I also like Jane a lot, and the development of her romance with Tarzan is fantastic. I think Jane is actually underrated as far as Disney characters go.

M: I love the dynamic between Tarzan and Kala. She is such a wonderful character. She adopts him and saves his life, and goes against Kerchak, raising him nonetheless. She provides him with love and never looks down on him or makes him feel different. I particularly love the scene after the elephant stampede. He tells her to look at him, and she says that she does, and then she makes him listen to her heart. It’s such a poignant scene. However, the scene that always brings me to tears is when she takes him to his old house and tells him the truth, and then, he goes out dressed as a man, and she cries. I just lose it when he tells her that she’s always going to be his mother. The filmmakers built a beautiful and rich relationship between the two. Regarding Jane, I also like her very much. She’s not your typical princess archetype. She’s very knowledgeable in theories and books, but she’s ill-equipped for the jungle, which makes for some hilarious moments. I also like her relationship with Tarzan and how she never looks at him as someone inferior, but instead, is fascinated by him.


V: Yes, that scene is fantastic! The music, visuals and vocal performances from both Glenn Close and Tony Goldwyn are just pitch-perfect in this sequence. Truly seeing her son as a human for the first time makes Kala feel as though she’s losing him, and his reassurance is so heartfelt. As for Jane, another thing I like about her is that she’s a damsel in distress but never a useless idiot. As you said, she has no skills for traversing her new surroundings, but she teaches Tarzan a lot too. During “Strangers Like Me,” I love how he falls in love with her by learning from the slide projector, listening to her read, bird watching with her, etc. This is another of my favorite sequences in the film. It’s interesting how Jane swoons over the ape-man. In most Disney movies, it’s the other way around, with the man falling for the woman’s looks or beautiful voice upon their first introduction.

M: I think Tarzan is the only Disney animated film where we have a fully realized mother/son relationship. In the films that came before and after, the strong relationship is always with the father. The mother usually is either dead or doesn’t do much. You can see that in Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan, and many others. In The Princess and the Frog, for example, Tiana’s dad dies. This leaves her with her mother, but she’s a minor character, and the father’s presence is felt throughout the film. In Tarzan, you finally get it the other way around, and it’s a very rewarding relationship. This also makes me wonder if that’s going to be the case in Frozen II, since only the mother has been cast (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood). This could develop her character and her relationship with her daughters. Returning to Tarzan, as you said, the cast is really good, with Glenn Close and Tony Goldwyn giving great performances. Minnie Driver is also excellent as Jane. What do you think of the sidekicks? I like Tantor and Terk a lot. I think both Wayne Knight and Rosie O’Donnell are good in their roles, especially O’Donnell. It could have been a tricky role, but she’s a good fit for the boisterous Terk. Nigel Hawthorne is great and funny as the professor as well. The only weak link is Clayton, as he’s the typical villain with a very basic motivation. Still, he serves the film’s story well, and his death is a very gruesome one.


V: That is true; usually, the father is the hero’s role model in Disney films. Even in a case like Treasure Planet, where Jim is abandoned by a deadbeat father and left only with his dedicated mother, the film focuses on Silver as a surrogate father figure. This doesn’t bother me, and in many cases, it’s very effective and emotionally resonant, but it makes Tarzan that much more special among the canon. I also like Tantor and Terk. They’re quite funny, and they have surprisingly sincere relationships with Tarzan. Professor Porter is a hoot, and I love how supportive he is of Jane. Brian Blessed is hilarious in general, and I really like his vocal performance as Clayton before his reveal as being a money-grubbing scumbag. After this point, he’s not as funny, and as you said, his greed is a very dull character trait. I don’t know why Disney liked to do villains like this in the late 90’s and early 2000’s (Ratcliffe, Clayton, Rourke, Slim), as they aren’t any fun and nobody remembers them well. I agree with you about the nature of Clayton’s death; I love how, if you look closely, you can see the shadow of his hanging body. Chilling.

M: Regarding the visuals, Tarzan is one of the most gorgeous Disney films ever. I ranked it high alongside Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas, and Tangled. The deep canvas technique used in the film gives it a lot of depth and makes the jungle feel alive. The character animation is also impressive, with Glen Keane doing outstanding work with the title character, especially in the scenes where he swings through the jungle. I think the great Roger Ebert said that Tarzan and animation were made for each other, as no other live-action film could do the same type of magic Keane did.


V: Great list. I would substitute Pocahontas for Treasure Planet or Hunchback. Pocahontas has a lot of dull-looking scenes, while those two push the boundaries of what an animated film can be. Regardless, we both agree that Tarzan is among the greatest Disney films visually. Glen Keane is one of my favorite animators, having created several of my favorite Disney characters. The anatomy on his Tarzan is very impressive and meticulous, but I think his facial expressions are the best thing about his design. Unlike Hercules, there’s an intelligence behind Tarzan, and you can really see his thought process in his face. He survives for so long in the jungle partially thanks to his cleverness. I also love the look of wonder Keane gives his hero at key moments, such as meeting a human for the first time and learning about English society and culture. This character is truly a masterpiece of animation. I know we briefly mentioned him earlier, but I want to emphasize how much Tony Goldwyn brings to this character as well. Again, rather than playing him loud and boisterous, he imbues Tarzan with an understated curiosity and a quiet kind of sadness.

M: Tony Goldwyn does a lot with so little, which is impressive. He doesn’t have many lines, but every word he mutters has a purpose and is profoundly affecting. I’d also like to commend (again) Glenn Close. She’s such a great actress, and you can see that in this role. Just three years before, she was loud and over the top as Cruella, and here, she’s more quiet, loving, and wise. That’s range. To wrap up, I think the Renaissance ended very well with Tarzan. The film is a winner on almost every front. Sometimes I feel it doesn’t get enough credit for its virtues (great songs, gorgeous animation, good characterizations, and an excellent and heartfelt mother/son relationship). It’s one of the best films Disney has produced, period.


V: You’re exactly right about Close; she absolutely kills it as Kala. Every emotional beat with this character is felt because of her expert delivery. I think yours is a fair assessment of the film. I do consider Kerchak and Clayton to be somewhat serious flaws; however, Tarzan is so good in almost every other area that I can’t help loving it.

M: This is the end of our A Decade Of series regarding the Disney Renaissance. What do you think of Tarzan? Let us know in the comments and stay tuned to Geeks + Gamers for more articles soon!


Plot - 8
Acting - 10
Editing/Direction - 9.5
Music/Sound - 9
Animation - 10



Disney's Tarzan is visually lush and features gorgeous and emotional music. A couple of side characters don't quite shape up, but the main cast is exemplary.

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