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By Chris Dos Santos
8th June 2024

It's 1999, the end of the century, and for the Disney company it would mark the end of their decade-long reign, dubbed the Disney Renaissance. This decade of course started with 'The Little Mermaid', which helped return the animation studio to both critical and commercial success. With each film released in the 90s - 'Beauty and the Beast', 'Aladdin', 'The Lion King' - the studio only got bigger and bigger. Then 1995's 'Pocahontas' happened, and so did its decline.

It's important to note that 1995 was also the release of Pixar's first film, 'Toy Story', and overall, a shift in the animated industry began. A year prior Disney's studio head, Jeffrey Katzenberg, left the company to create rival studio DreamWorks. So, at the beginning of the 90s Disney essentially had no competition and the new medium of computer animation began to become a threat. In 1989, Disney was the only major studio to release an animated film. By 1999, Warner Bros. and Paramount had entered the race. Also released that year, 'Tarzan' historically marks an interesting shift not just for Disney but animation as a whole.

Outside of 'The Rescuers Down Under', 'Tarzan' is largely swept under the rug when it comes to 90s Disney. This is largely due to the rights being owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. and having much stricter rules compared to, say, Victor Hugo or Hans Christian Anderson's estates. Disney was also challenged with its films directed at the young male demographic. While the Disney Princess branding didn't begin until 2000, those films and toys were much easier for the studio to push and reuse for new generations. While 'The Lion King' had a more universal appeal due to animals being the only characters, 'Hercules' was a more straightforward Disney musical and 'Aladdin' had comedy and a princess. 'Tarzan' is more of an outlier in its line-up. His movie has songs but they aren't musical numbers, they are Phil Collins singing over montages. Jane is the only human female character, but not only isn't a princess also has a signature yellow dress that would blend in next to Belle. The animal characters are there, but they aren't the focus compared to something like 'The Jungle Book'.


I find Disney's attempts at creating a toy line centred around boys to be as successful as their princess one interesting. There was one called Disney Adventurers (not to be confused with the magazine) that started alongside 'Tarzan'. Similar to the princess pink void, this line-up features Aladdin, Peter Pan and Captain Hook (including a villain in the main line-up only illustrates the problem with this branding), alongside Hercules and Tarzan on a blue void. The line dissolved in 2004, after never expanding on that line-up even though 'Treasure Planet' and 'Atlantis: The Lost Empire' were released in that timeframe. There was also a Disney Heroes line-up, but much border in their scope with Jiminy Cricket, Pongo and even characters from 'Home on the Range' and 'Enchanted', but less is known about this line-up. While both did have some moderate success, they never reached the heights of the princesses and thus were cancelled by Disney.

'Tarzan' is arguably one of the most faithful adaptions in Disney's collection. While other films have become the standard - you can't think of 'Aladdin' without picturing the Disney version - 'Tarzan' feels closer to other depictions of the character and stands alongside them as opposed to being the stereotype. While identifiably Disney the film stylistically stands out; 'Tarzan's' animation has thicker brown lines that resemble animation sketches. Phil Collins' music is still jaw-dropping and the story feels very intimate for a Disney film, with Jane and Tarzan's relationship being a core focus. The film also invented an animation technique called Deep Canvas. This allowed for CGI backgrounds to resemble a traditional painting that a camera can freely move around in. This allowed for not only stunning backgrounds but the truly gorgeous tree-surfing sequences that have become some of the most beautiful pieces in traditional animation. The final scene of the film with Tarzan and Jane surfing through the jungle as Phil Collins' 'Two Worlds' swells is a technical feat that will never not give me chills.

Of the Renaissance films, 'Tarzan' is the third-highest grossing, earning more than both 'The Little Mermaid' and 'Beauty and the Beast' but also costing the most to make at over five times the budget of the latter. 25 years on, it's interesting to see where just 'Tarzan' fits into that legacy. What became of Disney's 'Tarzan' as a franchise took some very interesting turns. The first was the video games. 'Tarzan' became something of a mascot for Disney during the PlayStation and Game Boy eras. Next was a short-lived animated series 'The Legend of Tarzan' (not to be confused with 'the 2016 film'); the animation is some of the worst in Disney television and features fantastic plots like the rediscovery of dinosaurs, a magical hidden ancient city with anthropomorphic leopards in which Jane gets possessed, and President Theodore Roosevelt goes on safari. The show lasted one season but a few episodes were produced for season 2 that were turned into the direct-to-DVD film 'Tarzan & Jane'. Which is the worst kind of Disney sequel - three episodes of a show poorly strung together to form some seamlines of a plot with absolutely point-of-the-barrel animation. Watching this right after the first film was jarring, with the drop in quality shocking. Next up was 'Tarzan II' - the other kind of Disney sequel, the mid-quel, taking place when Tarzan was a child. This one is a massive step up in terms of animation, plus they not only got Phil Collins to write new songs but also Glenn Close to return as Tarzan's adoptive gorilla mum. This one goes into the forgettable category, and adds absolutely nothing to the cannon that the 'Son of Man' sequence didn't already cover. We learn that Tarzan is not an ape but a... Tarzan, groundbreaking stuff.

The final scene of the film with Tarzan and Jane surfing through the jungle as Phil Collins' 'Two Worlds' swells is a technical feat that will never not give me chills.

Now the wildest and last part of the Disney 'Tarzan' franchise... the Broadway musical! In 1997, Disney took 'The Lion King' to the stage and changed the game. The company stayed off Broadway until 2006 when Phil Collins and the Mouse took these 'Strangers Like Me' to the stage. It sounds like a weird fit, but when you boil it down to a Disney movie - featuring animals, set in Africa and songs written by a British man - it all makes sense as to how this came to be. It's no surprise however that this is the least successful Disney Broadway adaption, lasting only until July 2007. Interestingly, while the show didn't have many international productions, it crushed it in Germany running from 2008 until 2018. It also had a reality TV show 'Ich Tarzan, Du Jane' ('I Tarzan, You Jane') where the winners became the lead roles. The show even got revived in Germany as recently as 2023.

'Tarzan' is fascinating to look back on. I didn't even touch on the fabulous NSYNC cover of 'Trashin' the Camp', a song with no lyrics but rather entirely scat singing, "Zabwe dap dooby doo" for two minutes. More than its other films, Disney took a lot of interesting journeys with this IP, and while it's easily overlooked as 'Toy Story 2' was released the same year, there is so much to love about it. It perfectly ties up what the Disney Renaissance was all about - innovation and creativity - and making films for modern audiences. As Walt once said, "We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths," and 'Tarzan' truly captures that. Blast that Phil Collins soundtrack, surf on a tree and do your best 'Tarzan' yell, because 'You'll Be in My Heart' this 25th anniversary.

RELEASE DATE: 09/09/1999
RUN TIME: 01h 28m
CAST: Tony Goldwyn
Minnie Driver
Brian Blessed
Glenn Close
Nigel Hawthorne
Lance Henriksen
Wayne Knight
Alex D. Linz
Rosie O'Donnell
Jack Angel
Kevin Lima
WRITERS: Tab Murphy
Bob Tzudiker
Noni White
SCORE: Phil Collins
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