Disney’s Tarzan was released in 1999 as the tenth and final release during the Disney Renaissance era. As with many of Disney’s animated movies it is based on another famous work- this time adapting the 1912 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. And by 1999, Disney had become masters at reworking classics. Having already recreated stories like: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Mulan; the House of Mouse had adaption down to a science. But 1999’s Tarzan stands out among the rest. It has its feet in two different worlds: the one in the Disney Renaissance, a period of ten years when each year brought a new animated movie filled with original songs in the spirit of the Walt Disney days, and the other in the post-renaissance world where Disney began experimenting with new technologies and genres. With a soundtrack by former Genesis star Phil Collins, Tarzan was one of the few Disney films where someone outside of the movie sings the songs instead of the characters (Trashing the Camp being the exception). With Tarzan, Disney was breaking the mold they had contained for a decade.
Adapting a classic novel into a child-friendly animated film is no easy feat. The storywriters often have to make changes to certain plot points, characters, or settings; in order to make the new version work. What also makes Tarzan stand out is just how different Disney decided to make it. Many of their older classics follow the same plot points for the most part (i.e. Peter Pan takes the Darlings to Neverland, they fight pirates, they win, Peter brings them home). But Tarzan has a different feel to it entirely. It takes its notes from the entire book series and then adds its own flairs. The new story created by Disney follows Joseph Campbell’s path of a hero more closely, and it is for this reason that we are breaking the story down today. Let’s get started…
Tarzan’s parents are on a ship that gets wrecked in the middle of the ocean and they land on an African beach. They get to work creating a treehouse to live in and seem to be doing well, or as well as a family can be after experiencing such trauma. But disaster strikes again. The parents are soon killed by Sabor, a leopard of the jungle, while baby Tarzan is spared. Around the same time, Sabor also kills a baby ape leaving Kerchak and Kala without a child. Soon, Kala finds baby Tarzan and adopts the orphan as her own and thus the path of the hero begins. As a child, Tarzan is an outcast. Constantly seeking acceptance, his mother teaches him that it is not what he looks like, but who he is on the inside that is important. He is not accepted by the ape family until he faces his first villain.
Most stories would consider Sabor the final villain. He is the one that kills Tarzan’s parents and the ape child, and has caused the story to unfold. He is the source of anger and pain for the main characters and he is the emblem of possible revenge and justice. In an alternate adaption, one might see Tarzan train his entire life and finally, at the end, get his revenge on Sabor. But that is not what happens in Disney’s story. Tarzan’s first act as an adult, which subsequently ends the first act of the story, is defeating Sabor. He gets his revenge and he delivers justice for himself and for his adopted parents. He is finally accepted by the gorillas, but the story doesn’t end here.
Tarzan meets his main challenge soon after: humans. Humans that introduce him to love, to life, and to the world. And among the humans, he meets Clayton- the true antagonist. Clayton represents more than just evil. Clayton is everything Tarzan comes to despise about humanity, he is everything Tarzan would have been if his family was never shipwrecked, and he is everything Tarzan might become if he chooses to leave the gorillas forever. Clayton is more than just Tarzan’s opposite. He is Tarzan from a different world. He is the Bizarro to Tarzan’s Superman- the Darth Vader to Tarzan’s Luke. By the climax of the film, Tarzan has a choice: shoot Clayton, the man who betrayed him to enslave his family, with his own gun, or let him live. To Clayton, Tarzan will finally become a man if he shoots him. He will complete the downfall and become what humanity is. But Tarzan refuses. He smashes the gun and becomes what humanity could be. Faced with the choice of revenge and justice again, Tarzan chooses not to act on it. He remembers what his mother taught him many years before: that it matters what he is on the inside. His family isn’t just the ones who look like him, but are the ones that care about him. Clayton meets his demise at his own hands instead of Tarzan’s.
One of the things that Tarzan does so well is it keeps the ordinary (use the word stereotypical if you’d like, though that has a more negative connotation then what is meant) ideas that are on the path of the hero, but turns them on their head, which, in turn, crafts something new. Tarzan, the man raised by apes, is the one that knows grace and forgiveness while Clayton, the man raised by men, does not. Tarzan follows a moral compass while Clayton follows greed. Tarzan then makes the argument that humanity is the beast, not the animals. The humans in the story act like savages while the animals act with civility. It becomes a story of human nature versus nature’s nature. A story of nature versus nurture. It takes the normal and changes the status quo.
However, to be fair, Tarzan does not only learn of these morals from the jungle. There is a model of human kindness that he encounters first in his adventures: Jane. The woman that one day becomes his wife, teaches Tarzan the goodness of the world outside of the jungle. She teaches him arts, science, music, dancing; the parts of humanity that makes the heart light on fire. She shows that though people can be cruel, and the world can be dark, there is still good. There is still a reason to wake up every morning. There is grace in the failings. It begs the question: what would the story of Tarzan look like if he had met Clayton before Jane? In a task to search for strangers like him, would Tarzan have gotten swept up in all that Clayton could offer and turn into the villain himself? Or would love still prevail overall? Would Tarzan still abandon civilization to take his place as Kerchak’s son and lead the gorillas?
In the end, Disney turned an entertaining episodic book series into a commentary on humanity. They show both the good and the bad of what people are capable of and the goodness that can result between humans and animals when given the chance. Tarzan tells the story of a hero, who goes from orphan, to outcast, to leader. It shows that family is not defined by looks, or in this specific case species, but by the love between them. Tarzan brought together two worlds to create one family.
(Cover Photo: WallpaperCave)