Hollywood & Vine: The 25th Anniversary of Disney’s “Tarzan”

Kevin Lima, who co-directed Disney’s Tarzan with Chris Buck, came to the project from his last film, 1995’s A Goofy Movie. Although both features seem as different as they can be, Lima found several similarities when discussing Tarzan in a 1999 interview.

“If you really look at the movies, they’re about the same thing,” he said. “Ultimately, they’re about family and patching relationships. All of those themes sort of play through.”

That’s one of the differentiators in Walt Disney Feature Animation’s adaptation of the oft-filmed, iconic story from author Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Lima added, “We didn’t say, ‘We’re not going to do it like the other films,’ because there are things in this film that still seem like classic Disney moments. We just followed what the story told us it needed to be.”

As in Burrough’s classic tale, Disney’s Tarzan begins with a mother, father, and infant lost in a remote jungle. After the parents’ death, the babe, named Tarzan, is raised by nurturing apes and wonders if he truly belongs.

An expedition enters the jungle, led by Professor Porter, who brought his daughter, Jane. Meeting Jane opens up a new world for Tarzan as he sees others like him, including Clayton, the film’s villain and the expedition’s big game hunter. Clayton looks to capture the gorillas, which lends the film its conflict and tension, as Tarzan must decide between these two worlds.

“He’s a child who is trying to find himself,” said Glen Keane in 1999. Keane, a master animator, and legend in the industry, supervised the character of Tarzan. “And the thread of our story follows a very human, natural quest that we all go on.”

Bringing Tarzan to life in animation was an opportunity to do something that had never been done with the character before.

“Here was a chance to make Tarzan move like he does in the book,” said Buck in ’99. “There’s always a guy swinging on a vine or walking around in a live-action film. This is a man who was raised by the apes and doesn’t really know human locomotion; he knows how to move like the apes.”

Keane found unlikely inspiration for this when he watched his son engage in extreme sports like rollerblading, snowboarding, and skateboarding. “I started thinking of Tarzan like that,” said Keane. “He has to be moving through the jungle, always on the edge. Putting him in danger is something that makes him feel alive. I started to think of him as a ‘tree surfer.’ He surfs the branches, which became like a freeway for him to move along.”

McDonald’s Tarzan tie-in “Happy Meal” bag in 1999.

Adding to the character’s fluidity in Tarzan was a then-new computer animation program dubbed “Deep Canvas.” With this, an artist would paint with a stylus on a “digitizer tablet,” which was recorded by the computer. “Deep Canvas” would then regenerate the art as a “moving painting.”

This technology added tremendous depth to Tarzan, particularly during the fast-moving, infectious song, “Son of Man,” one of several created for the film and performed by Phil Collins over the soundtrack. This made Tarzan a much different musical from the studio’s other efforts during the 1990’s.

“We felt that his sense of rhythm was the right link for something that was set in the jungle,” said Tarzan producer Bonnie Arnold in 1999, describing Collins’ involvement. “It was an interesting marriage of his abilities as a songwriter with his sense as a percussionist.”

“We began to question whether the characters really had to sing,” noted Buck. “Then, the year that we started working on the film, Toy Story came out, and they were very successful with not having the characters sing but instead using background songs. We realized that does work and that the audience accepts it.”

One of the songs, the Academy-Award winning “You’ll Be in My Heart,” is sung not just by Collins, but part of the song is performed by actress Glenn Close, who voiced Kala, the gorilla who adopts Tarzan and serves as his mother. Tarzan also included the voices of Tony Goldwyn as Tarzan, Minnie Driver as Jane, Nigel Hawthorne as Jane’s father, Porter, Brian Blessed as the villainous Clayton, Lance Henriksen as Kerchak, the silverback gorilla, who is the leader of the tribe, Wayne (Seinfeld’s Newman) Knight as Tantor the elephant, Alex D. Linz as young Tarzan and comedian Rosie O’Donnell, as Tarzan’s best friend, the wise-cracking gorilla, Terk.

Mike Surrey, who served as supervising animator for Terk, said in a 1999 interview that he was very careful to not let O’Donnell’s persona take over the character of Terk. “You don’t want it to be Terk as Rosie; you want it to be Rosie as Terk,” said Surrey. “It has to be about the character. There are a lot of similarities between Rosie’s on-screen performances and the character, which is what you want to grab from and put in there because it’s appealing. It’s dangerous, though, because you don’t want to start writing the scenes for how they work for Rosie; you have to think about how they work for Terk.”

Disney’s Tarzan debuted on June 12, 1999, at the El Capitan Theatre and then on June 16th everywhere. Amid the Star Wars – Episode I summer, Tarzan was a success at the box office, bringing with it a flood of promotion, merchandise, and, in addition to an Oscar, a hit, Grammy-Award winning soundtrack for Collins.

Many consider Tarzan to be the film that signaled the end of the decade-long animation renaissance at the Disney studio, which began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. Just six years after Tarzan’s release, Disney and other animation studios would shift to computer animation during the next era.

Twenty-five years later, Disney’s Tarzan stands as an impressive achievement by the studio’s artists to leave their indelible impression on a familiar character and story, crafting a film with a message that still resonates with audiences.

“Tarzan realizes that it doesn’t matter which family you’re born to,” said Arnold. “Life is about surrounding yourself with people you love and who love you, and if people take that away from the film, I feel we’ve accomplished a lot.”