This movie doesn’t really get the credit it deserves. Released after the end of the so-called “Disney Renaissance”, Tarzan feels like one of those films that is somewhat lost in Disney obscurity. We all remember seeing it, but it’s not one of the films people mention when talking about Disney classics. Is it because there have been so many various versions of the Tarzan story over the decades that it feels somehow less unique? Was it somehow less marketable to children that the company simply didn’t get as strong a reaction to its release as with other films? I can’t pinpoint what it is exactly, but there’s just something about Tarzan that causes it to be often overlooked. It’s really a shame because it’s actually incredibly well-done.
We all know the classic story of Tarzan: orphaned boy raised in the jungles of Africa by gorillas. When he encounters humans for the first time in his life, his eyes are opened to a vast new world of possibilities, while he must decide where he truly belongs. In keeping with this basic storyline, Disney does a terrific job. Tarzan’s history is set up in the opening scenes, shipwrecked with his parents before they’re killed by a jungle predator, only to be found and taken in by a gorilla who has recently lost her own son. Tarzan grows up trying desperately to fit in with his adoptive family, yet nearly everyone around him treats him like an outsider, forcing him to work twice as hard to fit in. It’s a solid foundation for his backstory, and helps drive the remainder of the film. It’s also a bit lengthier than some of Disney’s other backstory segments; they focus both on Tarzan as a baby and as a young boy before allowing him to mature to adulthood. These pauses are necessary to allow the audience to relate to the character and to truly understand the nature of how alone and different he feels. These sentiments would have been lost had the film breezed through these opening scenes.
The story builds up steam when other humans are brought into the picture: Doctor Archimedes Porter, his daughter Jane, and their hired bodyguard Clayton. Each has their own distinct personality (with Clayton being to movie’s main antagonist). My favorite though is Jane, who is allowed to be spunky and unique, despite the fact that the film is clearly set in the past.
One of Jane’s earliest scenes is one of my favorites in the whole film, even though it’s only purpose is to facilitate the meeting between Tarzan and Jane. This could have been accomplished any number of ways, but the writers allowed Jane to have personality, attempting to outsmart a monkey who’s stolen one of her drawings, only to have the monkey’s entire family chase her through the jungle. It’s action and comedy intertwined, helping Jane feel so much more real than had she just been a typical uptight “lady”.
The main crux of the story is Tarzan deciding where he belongs, in the jungle or in civilization with other humans, while also having to protect gorilla family from Clayton and his band of poachers. The climactic battle scene is somewhat lengthy, but it helps add to the tension and drama as Tarzan must decide what’s right for him. Ultimately he decides to stay in the jungle, but at the last second Jane and bewilderingly, her father, decide to stay behind as well.
This is probably the one part that the film loses me. It’s all well and good for Tarzan to stay. After all, he knows the jungle, he grew up there. Jane makes a GIANT leap by deciding to stay with him. Has she really thought this through? This is a major lifestyle change to decide on what appears to be a whim. Goodbye showers, goodbye any modern conveniences you had (whatever those were in the 19th century). There just isn’t quite enough soul-searching or addressing of the real practicalities of living in the jungle for my liking. She rushes into it a little too prematurely, and ultimately I don’t really like that message for young girls: hey kids, give up everything and just follow around a boy you’ve only known for a short period of time! I get that Disney is just sticking to the source material, and that the story’s just going for the romance element, but the feminist in me just can’t overlook this.
Ending aside, this is a really well-done film. People don’t seem to give it the same sort of attention as other films of the period though. In my mind it’s lightyears better than Hunchback of Notre Dame, yet it receives about as much attention as that far inferior film. Is it because, unlike most other films of the time, this one isn’t a musical? Yes, it has a few songs, but they’re all played over montages; none of the characters sing. Perhaps that has something to do with it, or perhaps it’s something else entirely. Whatever it is, I’m glad I revisited this after so many years. It’s a surprisingly good watch, and definitely deserving of a repeat viewing.