When I first heard that Disney were going to do an animated Tarzan, I shuddered at the thought. What immediately came to mind was something akin to Disneys animated version of Rudyard Kiplings The Jungle Book (1967) the original stories of which were the model for Tarzan where Mowgli was accompanied by singing animals. The idea of Tarzan accompanied by musical chimpanzees and the film pitched down to the level of some of the other Disney films of this era such as Aladdin (1992) and Hercules (1997) where any potential seriousness was buried under constant pop culture in-references and one-liners was not a particularly promising prospect.
The surprise then is that Disneys Tarzan turns out halfway decent. It achieves this largely by avoiding the silliness of other 1990s Disney films like Aladdin and Hercules and taking itself seriously. Moreover, it manages to squeeze new things out a story that has been done to death by now (see below for the other Tarzan adaptations). Being a Disney film, it is able to give far more time over to Tarzans childhood than any other Tarzan adaptation, simply because a young boy surrounded by talking apes is something that Disney animation can do far better than any live-action film. The first half is surprisingly faithful to Edgar Rice Burroughs book. We get the full origin story of Tarzans parentage as the abandoned child of shipwrecked British aristocracy there is a shipwreck instead of a ships mutiny, however all the scenes with Tarzans adoption by Kala, his discovering the treehut, the childs primer and taking the knife are there. Tarzans parents, the Clayton/Greystokes are never named, although there is the supporting character of Clayton who comes to the jungle with the Porter expedition in the book and is here elevated into a major villain (although there is no indication that he is related to Tarzan in any way). The film does depart from Burroughss book towards the end, adding a plot about Claytons plans to capture the apes and the big drama of Tarzan being duped into showing their hiding place.
Disney provide the most obvious solution to dealing with the depiction of Tarzans life among the apes that comprise the early section of the book by casting the apes as standard Disney talking animals. This does reduce Burroughss serious first section to cutsie family entertainment and places much more emphasis on child-like fun among the apes as Tarzan grows up, with the addition of stock comedic supporting characters, even an impromptu tin pan orchestra as the apes go wild in the human encampment. For the most part though, the apes come across with dignity rather than being comic caricatures. The character of Tarzan now becomes the eternal child and the story is in essence a coming of age tale. The film also throws in some clever asides explaining aspects of the Tarzan myth the origin of the yodel is the young Tarzans natural ability at imitating other animals and the reason for him emerging as such an outstanding athlete and fighter is his trying to keep up with and be accepted by the rest of the ape tribe.
Modern Disney animated films have determinedly pushed an envelope in terms of trying to discover what can be done with animation. The dance sequence in Beauty and the Beast (1991) and the opening of The Lion King (1994) pushed 3-D computer animation to new unheard of levels of achievement. During the vine-swinging and branch-surfing scenes, the animation camera leaps right in there with Tarzan, flipping, diving and ducking through the foliage with exhilarating pace like the camera has been placed on a high-speed rollercoaster. When it comes to the action sequences, Tarzans fight with the leopard proves a show-stopper. However, this is surpassed by Tarzan and Janes breathlessly exciting flight from the baboons.
In all other regards, Tarzan is top-notch. Rosie ODonnell as a brattish ape and Wayne Knight as a gauche elephant register so strongly and endearingly that one is rarely ever aware that Disney is wheeling out their standard formula sidekick characters. Phil Collins songs are the only miscalculation the blandly MOR Collins seems a hard stretch to imagine as someone appropriate to musically accompanying primal jungle heroics but these are kept to a thankful minimum. Minnie Driver makes a delightful Jane her blend of prim Victorian forthrightness and coy delight makes for a combination so appealing that she surely tops all other live-action competitors hands-down for the sexiest performance of the year.
Disney subsequently spun Tarzan out as an animated tv series The Legend of Tarzan (2001) and then a video-released film sequel Tarzan & Jane (2002).
Other adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes include:- Tarzan of the Apes (1918), the silent Elmo Lincoln version; Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), the classic version with Johnny Weissmuller who went onto appear in a further eleven Tarzan films; Tarzan the Ape Man (1959) starring Denny Miller; Tarzan the Ape Man (1981), a softcore version featuring Bo Derek and with Miles OKeeffe as Tarzan, which is a direct remake of this film; Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), a lavish version starring Christopher Lambert that returns to the original novel; and the motion-captured animated Tarzan (2013) starring Kellan Lutz.
(No. 6 on the SF, Horror & Fantasy Box-Office Top 10 of 1999 list).