The last couple of years or so, I’ve been on a steady binge of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The writer of Tarzan, Barsoom, and Venus stories etc. Basically the father of adventure fiction and as I was reading The Man Eater, one of ERB’s lesser known works, it occurred to me “It’s been ages since I’ve watched Disney’s Tarzan. The movie that made me to seek out the author’s works, and the Disney film, which I have the most nostalgia.
After watching it, I can strongly say, Disney’s Tarzan is an amazing film. The movie is gorgeous to look at the African jungles, character silhouettes, and animations. The fight scenes, in particular are the best I’ve seen in an animated movie, especially Tarzan vs Sabor the leopard, and Tarzan vs Clayton who has the most gruesome scene wrt Disney or Pixar movies. The movie captures the spirit of the books, beautiful, sometimes whimsical, but always a sense of lurking danger and brutality.
The story is a classic coming of age similar to the first book Tarzan of the Apes, with characters drastically changed. IMO in the movie, Jane is an odd eccentric woman, like her father, and the romance between her and Tarzan feels earned. She is fuelled by curiosity due to Tarzan and he himself, is drawn to civilization, as he knows he is different from the tribe of Kerchak, and connects with Jane. Kerchak is also excellently characterised, brooding, past his prime as the protector of the tribe, yet he sees no worthy successor for his role. When Kala, his wife, adopts Tarzan he mistrusts him and continues to mistrust him. Kerchak’s acceptance of Tarzan is also a major plot point and is beautifully handled.
The scene that drives home the point, that Tarzan is an excellent story is when he decides to leave with the humans, to see civilization. He dresses in his slain father’s attire, and when Kala sees it, she completely breaks down. I personally think it is a touching scene and found it relatable as in when I first joined college, and my mother’s concern for me.
Overall, while being different from the book, it captures the essential theme of Tarzan of the Apes, what is better? The escapist notion of pure freedom, by being primitive, staying in the jungle? Or embracing the civilization and all the restrictions that come with it? The movie supports the former, while the book doesn’t answer it.
The better Tarzan books in the series, generally focus on this theme. In book 5 Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, he settles down in Africa with Jane and becomes an environmentalist, and a mediator for the African tribes, but in some later books (which I haven’t read yet), he apparently becomes a globetrotter. So kinda bounces back and forth.
Overall, Disney’s Tarzan is an excellent film, and I think most people will appreciate the movie as adults. As in, it’s more serious in tone and is more intense, compared to Aladdin, or the Lion King i.e. there aren’t any colourful characters like Zazu, Abu or Timon & Pumbaa. The story is more personal than operatic or fairy tale like, and squarely focuses on Tarzan, Kerchak, and Jane for character development. These differences for me, make Tarzan my favourite Disney movie and one of my favourite animated films.
Note: If you like the movie, I highly recommend the first book in the series, Tarzan of the Apes. The book is quite racist due its age (published in 1912), but at its core is a powerful and intense adventure story. The entire series is in public domain.