Saturday, November 29, 2014

TARZAN (1999)

RELEASE DATE: Friday 18th June 1999

Disney continued to mine popular literary classics as source material for animated films, and came to Tarzan, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs's original novel "Tarzan of the Apes." The biggest problem they faced was the fact that this story had already been adapted to film... many, many times before. What could the Disney artists do to make this version stand out from the other interpretations?

One of Tarzan's greatest legacies was the creation of a 3D environment creating program called "Deep Canvas." This essentially allowed the artists to create full 3D environments in the computer, but paint them as if they were a 2D painting. The traditionally-drawn characters could then be animated to move throughout these environments. With the location being a vast, dense jungle, this allowed for some amazing immersive shots that would have previously been impossible to create.

It was decided quite early in production that Tarzan would not be a musical in the traditional sense, but they still wanted it to have songs. Former Genesis front-man Phil Collins was brought in to write songs for the film, which he himself would sing on the soundtrack. This would eventually lead to Collins winning an Academy Award for the song "You'll Be In My Heart."

It's generally accepted that Tarzan marks the end of the Disney Renaissance, which began with The Little Mermaid. It was, at the time, the most expensive animated film ever created, but it was also very successful, making over triple its production costs back at the box office, and becoming the highest-grossing Disney animated film since The Lion King.

Some seven years later, Tarzan would follow Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame on to the stage. The Broadway production opened in 2006 and closed a year later due to poor ticket sales. The show was Disney's first Broadway flop. Having said that, various productions have popped up all over the world ever since its Broadway debut.

The film opens dramatically with a blazing shipwreck. The only three survivors climb into a lifeboat and head for the nearest shore.

As the young family builds a house in the trees on the outskirts of the African jungle, another family faces a new challenge. Kala and Kerchak, two gorillas, lose their baby to a vicious leopard named Sabor.

When the heartbroken Kala hears a mysterious baby cry, she is led to the treetop house where she discovers the dead bodies of the shipwreck survivors. Only the baby remains. Kala decides to care for the baby, desperately rescuing him from another attack by Sabor.

Kala returns to her family with the new baby. Kerchak, leader of the gorillas, does not approve. A young gorilla named Terk is intrigued by the new arrival. Kala names the baby Tarzan.

Years pass. As Tarzan grows up, he and Terk become good friends, but she seems somewhat embarrassed to be seen with him around the other gorillas. When he follows them to a waterfall, Terk tells him the only way he can be "in the gang" is if he collects an elephant hair.

Meanwhile, at the bottom of the waterfall, a young elephant named Tantor is not convinced that the water is sanitary enough to bathe in.

After causing an elephant stampede, Tarzan happily shows Terk the elephant hair. He's now a member of the gang!

Kerchak is furious at Tarzan for causing the stampede, however. He tells him he will never be part of the family. Poor Tarzan runs away. Kala finds him and tells him that even though they look different, their hearts are the same.

More years pass. Tarzan grows into a man, learning how to navigate the jungle in very creative ways.

Then one day, Sabor attacks the gorilla family. A fierce battle ensues, and Tarzan proudly holds the corpse of his life-long nemesis high above his head with a triumphant yell.

Just when it looks like things might be patched up with Kerchak and we may be heading towards happily ever after, something new comes into the jungle. Tarzan stares in shock as he sees, for the first time, other animals that look just like him.

Professor Porter and his daughter Jane have come to the jungle looking for gorillas to study. Accompanying them for protection is Mr. Clayton, a renowned hunter. Jane soon gets herself into trouble, being chased by an army of baboons. Tarzan races to her rescue.

Safe up in the trees, Tarzan finally has time to study this strange new creature closely. When he holds their hands together he realises they are exactly the same species. From that moment on his whole life is changed.

Meanwhile Terk, Tantor and the gang of gorillas has come across the Porters' camp and proceed to trash it. As Tarzan brings Jane back, they are met by Kerchak, who is not at all happy with these invading creatures.

The next day Tarzan comes to visit. Jane takes it upon herself to become the mysterious ape-man's teacher.

Tarzan takes Jane into the jungle and shows her things she has never seen before. As the two get closer their feelings for each other grow stronger.

Mr. Clayton eventually convinces Tarzan to show them where the gorillas are, but to do so, he needs to get Kerchak out of the way. She takes some convincing, but Terk eventually agrees to lead Kerchak away so that the nest will be free for a short while.

The Porters and Mr. Clayton finally see what they came to Africa to see: a living colony of gorillas. Suddenly Kerchak arrives back at the nest and furiously tries to attack the humans. Tarzan uses all of his strength to hold the giant gorilla back while they escape, but in doing so is labelled a traitor.

Kala, finally realising how torn Tarzan is feeling, shows him to the place where she found him. Dressing up in his father's suit, Tarzan makes the painful decision to go with Jane to England and leave his world behind. Unfortunately, Mr. Clayton has other plans. He has the Porters and Tarzan locked up in the ship's brig while he and his men go ashore with the intent of capturing the gorillas and taking them back to London to sell.

When all seems lost, Tantor snaps Terk out of her "emotional constipation" and the two embark on a daring rescue mission!

Meanwhile, in the jungle, the gorillas are being trapped and locked up.

Tarzan and Jane help to rescue the gorillas until Tarzan is shot in the arm by Clayton. A battle of wills takes place in the treetops until Clayton eventually leads to his own grisly demise.

As the Porters prepare to leave the following day, the professor suggests that Jane should stay because, though she might not realise it, she is in love with Tarzan. The professor ends up staying behind as well, joining Tarzan and the gorilla clan in the African jungle forever more.

IRVYNE: While some liberties were obviously taken in adapting Burroughs's novel to the screen, the choices were all inspired and effective. One of the original plans was to follow the book and have Tarzan accompany Jane to London in the film's third act, but it was decided that not only was this an unnecessary complication, it took the focus away from the location and characters that the film had been building up for the whole movie.

While the character of Mr. Clayton (deliciously played by Brian Blessed) might seem like a simple "let's insert a villain here" concept, he is actually based somewhat on a character from the book. Tarzan's real family name was Clayton, and he was supposed to be the heir to a vast estate. When he and his parents went missing, Tarzan's cousin William (also a Clayton) inherited all of the family's wealth. When Jane arrived in the jungle, William Clayton - a wealthy aristocrat - was also in her party.

I think the smartest casting in the film was getting Minnie Driver to play Jane. She is funny, a bit goofy, but also lovable and fun. Seeing her deal with being a fish out of water is extremely entertaining, especially in her initial introduction to Tarzan.

In the tradition of Disney's best, the plot never falters; it just keeps moving along at a brisk pace, introducing lots of entertaining characters and keeping the audience completely emotionally invested right up to the story's end.

Tarzan is easily one of the best looking animated movies that the Walt Disney Company has ever produced. Every frame is a rich tapestry of artwork, taking inspiration from the lush jungle to fill the screen with copious amounts of detail. The jungle is a living, breathing place, and the Deep Canvas tools allowed the artists to think much "deeper" than a simple flat painting.

Having such detailed backdrops meant that the characters would have to have an extra layer of detail as well. While the art style of Mulan dictated that the characters be very flat and stylised, Tarzan includes the highest level of shadowing in any Disney film. The characters really needed to have a three-dimensional look to fit in with the backgrounds. I don't think there is a single frame where the characters don't have at least two tones of colouring. This obviously took a lot of work and a lot of money, but it definitely paid off. It is a stunning example of how detailed an animated film can be.

There is also an ongoing theme of light and shadows. Since the gorillas' safety is dependent on their shelter, Tarzan is in a safe place whenever he is in the shade. When you see light piercing through (like with the Sabor battle) it's a signal of the danger.

The character of Tarzan is a master work as well, headed by the incredible Glen Keane. The Paris animation studio took responsibility for Tarzan, and Keane moved over there with his family during production on the film. This proved challenging for scenes where Tarzan interacted with other characters - Jane in particular - but the studios were in contact every day, exchanging drawings and working together towards the common goal.
To create Tarzan - a practically naked human character - and have him move in an entirely believable way, Keane and his team did extensive studies on human anatomy. Keane would do some drawings in various poses and give them to an anatomy expert, who would then draw in the muscles for the animators to study.

The result is a character that surfs through trees, swings on vines, leaps, bounds, and all the while moves in an anatomically correct way. Being a Glen Keane design though, Tarzan is also an incredibly expressive character. True to Keane's form, you really feel like the character you are watching is thinking. While Keane has created some outstanding characters in the past, I feel that Tarzan is his pièce de résistance.

The songs in Tarzan can be a contentious issue. As mentioned above, this is not a musical. The only time a character sings is in the first verse of "You'll Be In My Heart" where Kala is singing a lullaby to her new baby. Other than that, all of the vocals are Phil Collins.

The reason I think these songs work - and I didn't originally think they would - is first of all because the songs are quite good, and second of all because they are for the most part, songs overlaying a time-lapse montage.

"Two Worlds" is sung while thew two families' stories are established in the film's opening. The Academy Award winning "You'll Be In My Heart" is the bonding song between Kala and Tarzan. "Son of Man" is the montage where Tarzan goes from a boy to a man. "Trashin' The Camp" is a scat song without any real words, and the only ensemble piece in the movie. (Phil Collins's voice is still on the track though) "Strangers Like Me" - probably my favourite song on the soundtrack - is again a montage song where Tarzan and Jane become closer.

The songs are enhanced by the wonderful score by Mark Mancina. Collins and Mancina worked closely together in creating the texture of the music. Collins, being primarily a drummer, ensured that there would be strong percussive rhythms guiding the score from beginning to end.

Against my better judgement, I really do like the soundtrack to Tarzan. When Collins took the show to Broadway, he created new songs that sadly, are often quite awful... One thing that becomes glaringly obvious as you listen to the Broadway soundtrack, is that while Collins is an occasional master of melody, he is a terrible lyricist. Not only are his lyrics 90% filled with cliche and blandness, he clearly doesn't care much for rhyme. (In one instance he rhymes the word "love" with the word "vow.") I have no idea why the powers at Disney couldn't sit him down and say "Phil. Your music's great, but we need to call in a real lyricist to write the words."

As for the movie though, it works. I like this soundtrack quite a lot.

Tarzan is a classic for the ages. It did come late in the Disney Renaissance, but in my mind, it easily stands alongside the greats of the era. It has fantastic characters, a lot of heart, and it is visually stunning.

SHENZI: The artwork is so good in this.

MALEFICENT: All of the detail in the backgrounds! And the water is beautiful as well, with the waterfalls that move just like real waterfalls.

HAKU: I think it's the best water effects I've seen in a Disney movie up to this point.

ANNA: I love the way Tarzan tree-surfs! It looks so cool!

HAKU: One shot that is really jarring for me - it really bugs me - is the big hero shot at the end of the "Son of Man" montage. It breaks the fourth wall for the only time in the film.

IRVYNE: He's not looking at US! He's just looking back at all the trees he's been surfing on.

PASCAL: It's a poster pose.

MALEFICENT: Yeah. That annoys me as well.

WENDY: It's a bit too self-aware.

IRVYNE: I don't think it would have the same impact if he just bounced off into the distance instead of stopping and staring.

HAKU: The final shot in the film works better, because he's showing off for Jane, not just putting on a show for the audience.

MALEFICENT: And Jane strikes a "look-at-me-aren't-I-sexy" pose!

PASCAL: I'd forgotten how good the comedy is in this movie! There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments.

MALEFICENT: And those moments aren't just relegated to the token comic-relief characters either, which is nice.

ANNA: But it also makes me shed a tear as well.

IRVYNE: The scene where Kala takes Tarzan back to the treehouse is always a bit of a tearjerker.

MALEFICENT: I find it easy to believe that Tarzan and Jane actually fall in love. There's that great shot where all the gorillas are asleep and he's just lying there, wide awake, coming to realise that he is falling madly in love with her.

WENDY: Clayton's death is so dramatic!

MALEFICENT: I love how you can see what's going to happen before it happens, as the vines are wrapping around his throat. And he does it all himself. Tarzan doesn't kill him.

IRVYNE: He had the opportunity to kill him when he was holding a gun to his chin, but he chose not to.

WENDY: There aren't any weak spots in the story. And the characters are great. Even the comic relief isn't annoying.

SHENZI: I love Tantor!

PASCAL: I really don't like how so many characters die in this movie!

WENDY: I'm okay with that.

IRVYNE: It's the jungle. People die all the time.

MALEFICENT: It's their own fault! Tarzan's parents build this amazing tree-house and don't set any traps! No wonder the leopard kills them.

HAKU: If it was Swiss Family Robinson, they would have just RIDDEN the leopard!

IRVYNE: Let's not discuss that movie!... Ever again.

HAKU: I really like the way the prologue is structured.

IRVYNE: Yeah, I love how in the prologue, and a few other scenes as well, they act the whole thing out without any dialogue. Apart from Phil Collins, there's not a single spoken word in the film until Kala returns to the gorillas with the baby.

MALEFICENT: There are a lot of montages in this movie, and they all work really well.

HAKU: I could definitely see a parallel with Simba's growing-up montage.

IRVYNE: Watching these films all so close together, it's easy to see the similarities. I noticed an almost identical speech as in Pocahontas: "Protect this family and stay away from the strangers."

PASCAL: I laughed at the little cameo before the gorillas trashed the camp.

MALEFICENT: I love Minnie Driver's "Jane" voice. It's sexy.

PASCAL: Jane is really good at drawing on the blackboard! She's so good it almost seems like an animator is doing the drawing for her!

SHENZI: I like the songs in Tarzan, but Phil Collins's voice stands out too much.

MALEFICENT: It's like when Pixar got Randy Newman to sing all the songs in Toy Story. I don't like it. Why can't the songwriter just WRITE the songs and get someone else to sing them?

IRVYNE: It seems a bit narcissistic, doesn't it? It's like Phil's more concerned with getting his own voice in the movie than making the best decisions for the story.

ANNA: The songs work really well for the story though.

MALEFICENT: They do, and they're great songs, but it still annoys me to hear his voice all the time.

SHENZI: My favourite is the gorillas' "Trashin' The Camp" song. That's ace.

IRVYNE: Even though it's been relatively forgotten over the years, and it's not often included among the more obvious classics like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, I think Tarzan is definitely one of the best.

HAKU: At least Tarzan's loincloth is very well behaved. It covers exactly what it needs to cover.

IRVYNE: It wouldn't be a Disney movie if it didn't!

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