Edgar Rice Burroughs’ titular Tarzan has gone through a ton of botched adaptations over the last few decades. Speaking as a fan of the character and story arc, Disney’s “Tarzan” is probably my favorite adaptation of all time. Surely, it suffers from Disney tropes that make it very much a Disney movie, but damn it, it’s also a heart felt tale about a hero fighting for his unofficial family teeming with excellent performances and a haunting soundtrack. Plus, it garners the classic Disney themes of lost parents and a child being forced to grow up very quickly.
Following the original tale closely, we set down on 19th century, where an English couple are stranded on an African island after their ship burns down. Attempting to survive in a makeshift tree house, the couple is murdered by a leopardess named Sabor, leaving their newborn baby abandoned and without any hope of surviving. Baby Tarzan is discovered by a female ape named Kala who lost her own child, and battles Sabor for his life. Deciding to raise it as her own, she has to integrate the young child in to the colony, despite the protests of the leader Kerchak. Glenn Close and Lance Henriksen give excellent performances as the warring parents, both of whom constantly do battle about raising Tarzan and the potential for trouble it raises. We also get to focus on the young boy’s evolution in to an ape boy, and how he has to prove himself to Kerchak, who not only despises him, but has little respect for his abilities to survive among the apes.
“Tarzan” came around during the time where two dimensional animation was on the way out, which is sad considering Chris Buck and Kevin Lima’s depiction of Tarzan’s world is fantastic. This time rather than simply him swinging on trees, he slides and rides their branches like a snow boarder. Tarzan really knows his elements and the environment around him. Paired with the beautiful animation that depicts Tarzan as a somewhat primitive human being with the stature of an ape, there are a slew of breathtaking moments of action and sweeping adventure. Tony Goldwyn takes on Tarzan, conveying a sense of empathy and loss well, while also channeling the classic Tarzan cry in many instances. “Tarzan” has a lot of ground to cover, and still feels very complete, injecting a lot of heart and humanity in to it. It even manages to help you understand the harsh viewpoint of Kerchak, and why he just refuses to accept Tarzan, forcing Tarzan to hunt and strike down Sabor, as well as learn to be wary of outside English explorers, one of whom is Jane Porter.
The relationship between Jane and Tarzan is instantly an attractive aspect of the narrative, as Goldwyn and co-star Minnie Driver garner some really interesting and fun romantic chemistry. They’re both very foreign individuals to one another, and their exploration of each other’s habitats and personality is entertaining. That said, Disney does shove the colorful talking characters down the audiences throats, never content with just featuring Tarzan. While I’m fine with Tantor, Tarzan’s germaphobe elephant pal, Rosie O’Donnell is grating as Tarzan’s female ape pal Terk. In either case, while “Tarzan” can’t escape the Disney tropes, the film excels regardless with an excellent sound track from Phil Collins, rich characterization, and a fairly graphic tone that doesn’t shy away from animal or human deaths, at any point. “Tarzan” is a very underrated Disney adaptation that successfully tackles a lot of elements of the Burroughs story past cinematic adaptations couldn’t. Despite the brutally boring animated series, and resulting sequels, “Tarzan” is a great treatment of the original novel, and one I revisit constantly.