THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Tarzan’

The one that brought the Renaissance to a close.

As the 1990s drew to an end and the new millennium approached, Disney was still struggling to match the soaring successes of its animated films from the dawn of the decade. While none of these films had necessary “flopped,” the public’s interest in traditional hand-drawn animated feature films was clearly beginning to fade. As a studio with a seven-decade-long legacy of this style of animation, it was an art form Disney simply couldn’t walk away from, even as the death knell was beginning to toll.

Desperate for another box office smash, Disney turned to an icon of both literature and cinema that had been crying out for an animated adaptation for decades. After starring in over 15 live-action film adaptations, which included a series of MGM films in the 1930s and 40s, it was finally time for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes to make its debut in animation form. And it would prove to be the biggest Disney animated hit in years.

The idea for an animated adaptation of Burrough’s 1914 novel began back in late 1994 when then-studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg approached A Goofy Movie director Kevin Lima with the project. Katzenberg expressed a desire to have the film produced by Disney’s newly-created Canadian-based satellite animation studio, which was intended to produce animated television content. Katzenberg reportedly called Lima every second day to discuss the project, but the director felt the project was far too advanced for a department of junior animators and continued to deny Katzenberg’s request.

Just a few months later, Katzenberg would infamously depart Disney to create his own studio DreamWorks, with Lima assuming the project had died with Katzenberg’s resignation. However, in early 1995, then-CEO Michael Eisner discovered Katzenberg’s plans and again offered the project to Lima, who signed on as director after Eisner committed to the production being handled by the studio’s Feature Animation division in Burbank, California.

After spending two months studying Burroughs’ original novel, Lima approached his friend Chris Buck to co-direct the project. Buck had recently finished his work as a supervising animator on Pocahontas and was initially hesitant to take on his first directing role, but agreed to the position after hearing Lima’s vision for the film. With the directing team in place, Eisner began to the process of obtaining the rights from Burroughs’ estate.

As fate would have it, Walt Disney had approached the author in 1936 regarding a potential Disney animated adaptation of his novel. When Eisner contacted Burroughs’ estate, they shared with the CEO a letter Burroughs had written in reply to Disney’s request, which stated, “The cartoon must be good. It must approximate Disney excellence.” While no one could uncover why the project had never progressed beyond this initial correspondence, the letter essentially gave the project a tick of approval from both Walt and Burroughs from beyond the grave and Burroughs’ estate happily sold the film rights to Eisner.

After completing work on the screenplay of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, screenwriter Tab Murphy was enlisted in January 1995 to develop a story treatment for Tarzan. While Murphy initially stuck closely to Burroughs’ novel, the third act featuring Tarzan leaving the jungle for England didn’t sit with Lima and Buck’s vision for the film and its central theme of familial connections. As such, Murphy rewrote the latter parts of the screenplay by introducing a human villain character named Clayton, whose intentions for venturing into the jungle were revealed to be a plot to poach Tarzan’s gorilla family to sell back in England.

But Eisner felt the script was still lacking the dose of comedy of its fellow Disney animated feature films, particularly the supporting cast of animal characters. In January 1997, husband-and-wife screenwriting team Bob Tzudiker and Noni White were hired to help add humour to the script to balance out the dramatic tone of the film. After his success with adding comedic elements to the screenplay of Mulan, comedy writer Dave Reynolds was also hired to add humour-laced dialogue to the film’s screenplay.

The production soon scored a huge coup when Eisner convinced Toy Story producer Bonnie Arnold to essentially leave Pixar and join Disney to produce Tarzan. While Toy Story heavily featured music crafted by Randy Newman, the characters themselves did not sing the tracks like their Disney counterparts. In a bid to echo the non-musical structure of Toy Story, Arnold suggested Tarzan should follow a similar path and enlist a well-known singer/songwriter to write and perform the film’s musical numbers. Lima and Buck agreed, given they were already feeling completely uncomfortable with the idea of Tarzan breaking into song while perched on a tree branch.

In late 1995, the team approached Grammy Award winner Phil Collins to serve as the film’s songwriter, drawing immediate comparisons with Disney’s choice of Elton John as the composer of the music of The Lion King. Collins lept at the chance and almost immediately wrote three songs, “Son of Man,” “Trashin’ the Camp,” and “Strangers Like Me,” purely from reading the film’s screenplay and viewing the initial sketches.

Working closely with the animation team, Collins crafted a lullaby “You’ll Be in My Heart” to be initially sung by Tarzan’s adoptive mother Kala, and “Two Worlds” which would serve as the film’s anthem. The track would ultimately form an integral part of the instrumental score to be written by Mark Mancina, who had previously served as a producer of The Lion King soundtrack. Mancina and Collins worked closely together to allow Collins’ tracks to organically flow into Mancina’s orchestral creations.

The film’s animation team was split into two teams, one working in Burbank and the other in Paris. To accommodate for the difficulties in distance, the studio employed a system called a “scene machine” which allowed drawings to be digitally shared via the internet between the two animation studios. After completing work on Mulan, over 200 animators from Disney’s Florida satellite animation studio provided assistance to the project, with instructions provided via daily video conference between the three studios.

Animator Glen Keane was assigned the task of creating the titular character, taking heavy inspiration from the movements of skateboarder Tony Hawk for Tarzan’s unique ability to “surf” through the trees. As Tarzan only wears a loincloth for the majority of the film, Keane was required to create a realistic human musculature for the character. Keane studied numerous animals to craft Tarzan’s primate-inspired movements, while also consulting with a professor of anatomy to accurately animate the character’s muscles.

To craft the film’s numerous gorilla characters, key members of the production team spent two weeks on safari in Kenya to capture reference photos and videos while observing the animals in their natural environment. The team also visited Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda to witness mountain gorillas in the wild. Back in the U.S., the team attended lectures on primates and made frequent excursions to San Diego Zoo to further study their primates. After the unfortunate death of one of the zoo’s gorillas, the team were invited to witness a dissection of the body to learn more about the intricate musculature of the animal.

In an effort to create dazzling three-dimensional backgrounds, the production team developed a 3D paint and rendering technique known as “Deep Canvas,” which allowed artists to produce fully CGI backgrounds which resembled traditional paintings. This technology also allowed the camera to sweep through the jungle in a fluid motion, particularly during sequences involving Tarzan’s surfing movements amongst the jungle’s vines and branches. The technology would soon be employed on several future Disney animated productions and won its creators a Technical Achievement Academy Award in 2003.

Echoing the casting of Robin Williams in Aladdin and Eddie Murphy in Mulan, the production team were encouraged to cast a well-known comedian to provide the voice of Tarzan’s wise-cracking gorilla sidekick, Terk. While the character was initially written as a male gorilla, Rosie O’Donnell enquired about the role and begged for an opportunity to audition. After impressing the team with her audition, particularly her ability to voice both the child and adult incarnations of the character, the role was rewritten as a female and O’Donnell landed the part.

For the film’s neurotic elephant character Tantor, Woody Allen was cast in the role and began early pre-production recordings. At the same time, Katzenberg and DreamWorks were developing their next animated film Antz and Katzenberg felt Allen was perfect for the role. Continuing his vengeful quest against his former employer, Katzenberg was able to convince Allen to leave Disney and join the Antz project in exchange for a lucrative deal whereby DreamWorks would release Allen’s next four films. With Allen gone, the team instead cast Seinfeld actor Wayne Knight in the role. In hindsight, it was a lucky twist of fate, given what has since become of Allen’s reputation within the industry.

Much like Mulan, the premiere of Tarzan was a much more muted affair than the lavish events of several of its animated predecessors. The film premiered on June 12, 1999, at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood with the screening proceeded by a forty-minute concert from Collins, who performed several of the film’s songs and a few of his biggest hits. Tarzan opened in three select American cinemas that were able to screen the film through fully digital projection, thus becoming the first feature film in history to have been produced, mastered, and projected digitally.

Tarzan opened on June 16, 1999, to mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect score of four stars, calling the film “a visual exhilaration,” while Entertainment Weekly declared the film “a thrilling saga” and praised the film’s visual effects as “the neatest computer-generated background work since Keanu Reeves did the backstroke in slow motion.” However, the Chicago Tribune felt the film “lacks that special pizazz that the string of Disney cartoon features from The Little Mermaid through The Lion King all had,” while The New York Times felt it “looks and sounds like more of the same.”

The film turned the tide on the recent downward box office spiral of Disney animated features by achieving a U.S. opening weekend box office gross of $34.1 million, which was the highest opening box office result since The Lion King. Tarzan went on to gross $171 million in the U.S. and a further $277 million internationally for a total worldwide gross of $448 million to end the year as the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1999. While it was seen as a resounding success, it was outshone by the triumph of Pixar’s Toy Story 2, which grossed $487 million worldwide and took the mantle as the third most successful film of the year.

At the 71st Academy Awards, Tarzan became the first Disney animated film since Pocahontas to win Best Original Song, with Collins awarded an Oscar for “You’ll Be in My Heart.” It would be the final Disney animated feature to win this category until Frozen in 2013. Collins also won a Golden Globe for the track and the soundtrack was awarded a Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album. The soundtrack sold over 2.5 million copies worldwide, with “You’ll Be in My Heart” hitting #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Singles Chart and genuinely revitalised Collins’ career.

As the widely-accepted final film in the Disney Renaissance era, Tarzan marked the end of a period of Disney animation marked by tremendous highs the studio was never able to repeat. While Tarzan couldn’t quite meet the towering benchmark set by several of its predecessors, its animation was the culmination of a decade of advances in computer technology that took animation to places hand-drawn artistry simply couldn’t reach. The sequences featuring Tarzan speeding through the jungle are still wildly impressive today, offering a sweeping tour of his surrounds in a frenetic and chaotic fashion that creates a genuinely thrilling viewing experience.

While it was a unique move to shy away from the traditional musical structure of every single Disney animated feature of this era, it’s a choice that only works if you happen to consider yourself a fan of Collins music. Personally, his voice and style have never been a particular favourite of mine. As such, the experience of hearing him warble over numerous tracks in the one film is lost on this viewer. That’s not to suggest the songs Collins wrote aren’t wonderful creations, with “You’ll Be in My Heart” easily standing as one of the best Disney songs of this era. It just would have been nice to hear another voice on the soundtrack other than Collins’.

The inherent issues with Tarzan lies with its narrative, which feels so painfully reminiscent of several other Disney films. It’s a patchwork quilt of Disney’s greatest hits and rarely stands on its own two feet as something unique and original. Most of this film feels achingly similar to The Lion King, right down to the film’s title treatment bursting onto the screen at the conclusion of the last drumbeat of the score before the end credits. Tarzan’s accent to his fateful mantle as king of the jungle is basically a similar journey to that of Simba. Even Collins’ music feels like a retread of John’s soundtrack, though at least John wisely allowed his songs to be performed by other singers.

At the heart of Tarzan is the love story of the titular character and plucky explorer Jane, voiced with impeccable skill by Minnie Driver. However, the pair don’t meet until almost the halfway point of the film, and almost instantly fall in love without any shred of narrative development. It’s a lazy technique that assumes its audience is already well aware the pair are destined for each other and doesn’t quite feel the need to explain how or why. By comparison to other Disney love stories like those found in Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin, it simply feels far too rushed.

The film is ultimately saved by its impressive animation and a rabble of endearing supporting characters, particularly Glenn Close’s empathetic performance as Tarzan’s adoptive mother. Close is the only performer allowed to briefly sing, begging the question of why she wasn’t allowed to perform the entirety of “You’ll Be in My Heart.” Despite its rousing success at the box office, Tarzan has mostly faded from memory, although an inevitable live-action remake is surely on the horizon. The film marked the end of an era of unprecedented achievements that saved Disney animation from certain doom. Sadly, it’s mostly downhill for the next decade.

Is Tarzan a Disney Classic? Despite its dazzling computer-generated animation, Tarzan falls apart from a narrative that rarely offers anything new and a love story without any semblance of progression. It stood as the farewell to a period of remarkable success, but it closed the era in rather muted style. The film certainly has its fans, but its no Disney Classic.

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