Based on the Tarzan of the Apes novels (which I have never read), it is considered the last movie of the Disney Renaissance. The film features Glenn Close as Kala, Brian Blessed (a famous British actor who I am not as familiar as some of my compatriots) as Clayton, and Rosie O’Donnell as Terk. Music was done by Phil Collins, who I was unaware until years after the film, already had a successful music career in the eighties.
An overarching theme of the movie is the notion of two families; it’s even mentioned in the opening song; “two worlds, one family/trust your heart, let fate decide, to guide these lives we see.” The film opens on two families; Kerchak and Kala and their son, happy. Then we see Tarzan’s parents bravely escape a burning ship. They make a life in the jungle. But both stories end in tragedy; the leopard Sabor first kills Kala and Kerchak’s child. As Kala mourns the loss of her son, she hears a strange cry. She’s led to the human’s tree house [which that whole bit reminds me of The Swiss Family Robinson; I know the old Disney version] and discovers the bodies of Tarzan’s parents (never realized we actually saw the bodies until recently, though it’s probable that I didn’t notice them as a kid). She then discovers an adorable baby Tarzan, but looks up to startlingly find Sabor lying in wait. The leopard attacks and Tarzan’s giggles distract kids from realizing that Kala and the baby are in danger. Gorilla and child manage to escape and Kala goes to introduce her find to her troop. However, Kerchak argues that the baby is “not our kind;” but Kala persists and he reluctantly agrees that she may keep the child, but warns that it “doesn’t make him my son.”
Kala soothes baby Tarzan that evening with a lullaby, You’ll Be in My Heart, “this bond between us/can’t be broken.” “From this day on/now and forevermore.” As Tarzan grows, he struggles to find his own place in his world. Kala encourages him to find his own sound; which is how his famous yell comes to be. He doesn’t quite fit in with the gorillas, but he’s brave…and reckless. He causes an elephant stampede that crashes through the gorilla troop. Kerchak takes him to task, stating to Kala he will “never be one of us.” Tarzan splashes mud on himself in an effort to look like a gorilla, but Kala patiently points out he has two eyes, like her. And a nose, like her. Their hands are similar, but there are distinct differences. The most important thing is that they both have a heartbeat. During Son of Man, Tarzan uses his own flair to accomplish what other animals do, “someday you talk with pride/son of man, a man in time you’ll be.” We witness Tarzan transform into an adult man. He figures out a spear – Kerchak doesn’t quite approve. His typical vine swinging comes about since he can’t keep up with gorillas on the ground; and new for this interpretation, Tarzan uses the moss-covered trees to glide on [I remember watching some clip on Disney channel of one of the artists being inspired by his own son’s skateboarding and that was how that bit was created].
An old enemy makes an appearance: Sabor attacks near the gorilla troop. Kerchak first tries to fight the leopard, but he stumbles after some swipes. Tarzan grabs his spear and jumps into the fray. Both combatants land strikes on each other. Tarzan loses the top of his spear and it seems like Sabor will be victorious; they fall into a pit and leopard is the first thing the gorillas see emerge. It’s followed by Tarzan, who holds the body aloft and lets out his cry. He then lays his defeated enemy before Kerchak and we can see that Kerchak is starting to respect Tarzan and he almost speaks, when a strange sound fills the air.
Kerchak leads his troop away, but Tarzan is curious. He investigates and comes across a shell, sniffing and tasting it (kids, do not try that at home; it’s also not the first time we the audience have seen a shell casing; there was a discarded rifle and shell in the treehouse when Kala discovers Tarzan and we even heard the muted echo of a gunshot). He eventually comes upon Jane, who got separated from her group: her professor father and Clayton, their hired protection (who seems too pleased with destroying the jungle). Jane had stopped to draw a picture of a baby baboon, but wouldn’t let the little monkey keep the picture. His cries bring his whole family of baboons who chase Jane. Tarzan swings to the rescue! Jane’s not terribly pleased at first, screeching several times. They eventually take shelter in a tree branch, the dispute with the baboons settled thanks to Tarzan. Tarzan is even more curious now; this creature in front of him resembles him. Jane, being a properly brought up British woman is appalled at her invasion of personal space, but becomes excited once Tarzan mimics her speech. Introductions are simple: Jane…Tarzan [brings back a memory of my dear French teacher who would harangue us to learn proper sentence structure because “you cannot always go around ‘You Tarzan, Me Jane.'”]
Meanwhile, Terk, Tantor, and their other gorilla friends stumble into the humans’ camp while looking for Tarzan and are utterly fascinated by all the sounds the strange things in camp (the teapot set is reminiscent of Mrs. Potts) and begin Trashin’ the Camp (the pop version is Phil Collins and N*SYNC; again, it was the nineties, we liked our boy bands). Tarzan and Jane arrive, breaking up the party. Jane’s amazed at Tarzan’s interaction with the gorillas. But Kerchak has found them and the animals leave. Leaving Jane to describe her rescue to her father and Clayton as: “I was saved by a flying wild man in a loincloth.”
Kerchak orders the gorillas to stay away from the strangers; Tarzan argues that they’re not dangerous, demanding why Kerchak is threatened by anything different. The leader’s final word on the matter is to “protect this family.” When Kala approaches her son, all he can do is dispiritedly ask “why didn’t you tell me there were creatures that look like me?” He begins sneaking off to the human camp to learn more about these Strangers Like Me. “I just know there is something bigger out there/I wanna know/ can you show me?/I wanna know about these strangers like me/tell me more/please show me/something’s familiar about these strangers like me.” Jane is thrilled to teach Tarzan, hoping it will foster a link to the gorillas she and her father are studying.
But the time comes that the boat has arrived to take them back to England. Jane wants Tarzan to come with them to London; he should be with his own kind. Clayton puts the idea in Tarzan’s head that if Jane sees the gorillas, she’ll stay. So Tarzan arranges for Terk and Tantor to distract Kerchak and introduces the Brits to his mother and the troop. Clayton marks the spot on his map and Kerchak thunders back into the nest. Tarzan holds off the leader to let the other humans run. Afterwards, he’s mortified of what he did, holding off Kerchak and the troop leader claims that the young man has betrayed them all.
Kala determines it is time to show Tarzan the truth, where she found him. Tarzan discovers his baby blanket, and a picture of his father, and mother. He comes out of the overgrown treehouse in presumably one of his father’s suits. All Kala has ever wanted for her son is for him to be happy. He bids her a tearful farewell, “no matter where I go, you will always be my mother;” Kala replies “and you will always be in my heart” and Tarzan proceeds to the beach and boards the ship for London. He walks into a trap. Clayton has staged a mutiny and he and his men are taking cages into the forest to capture Tarzan’s gorilla family “at 300 pounds sterling a head.” Terk is upset at Tarzan’s leaving, but Tantor hears Tarzan’s shout and drags the gorilla to rescue their friend. Clayton has locked Tarzan, Jane, and the others in the hold where Tarzan is frantically trying to escape; but he can’t climb metal in his shoes. Jane gets him to stop, stating that Clayton betrayed them. No, Tarzan betrayed his family, he responds. The ship rocks as Tantor heaves aboard, a well placed foot breaks through the hold and Tarzan is out and leaping overboard.
At the gorilla’s nest, Clayton and his men net and cage the gorillas, capturing Kala. Kerchak fights to protect his family and Clayton announces “I think this one will be better off stuffed!” As Clayton cocks his shotgun, Tarzan’s yell echoes, followed by a stampede of animals (they gathered as Tarzan ran through them, removing his human clothes). Tarzan kicks Clayton down and cuts Kerchak’s bonds. “You came back,” the leader remarks. “I came home,” the man corrects. He sets about freeing the rest of the gorillas, but Kala is already caged and on her way back to the boat. Jane spots her and swings to her rescue, her old baboon friends help, Tarzan arriving just in time to knock the last man out. A shot rings out, grazing Tarzan’s arm; Clayton has declared “I have some hunting to do.” Enraged, Kerchak charges the man; another shot, Kerchak drops. Tarzan checks on his leader and he too charges at Clayton. He dodges the bullets and leads Clayton higher into the trees. The gun is dropped at one point; Tarzan gets a hold of it and levels it at the hunter. “Go ahead, shoot…be a man,” the hunter dares. He flinches at Tarzan’s imitation of a gunshot, then Tarzan smashes the gun, declaring “not a man like you.” Incensed, Clayton starts hacking at Tarzan with his machete, Tarzan backs away, but starts flinging the vines at Clayton, tangling him. A short standoff, then Clayton is back, hacking at the vines, but not paying attention to the order. He creates his own noose, ignoring Tarzan’s warning, and drops. In the flickering shadows of the coming rainstorm, we see the outline of a now dead Clayton, his machete sticking up from the ground.
Tarzan checks on Kerchak, the other gorillas of the troop gathered around their leader. The man begs forgiveness; “no, forgive me,” the dying gorilla breathes, “for not understanding that you have always been one of us. Our family will look to you now….Take care of them, my son,” placing his larger hand on Tarzan’s shoulder. It falls as Kerchak closes his eyes; Tarzan gathers the large gorilla in his bulky arms, embracing the only father he ever knew. Looking to the rest of the troop, he takes his place, striking an intimidating gorilla pose, thumping his chest, and the rest of the gorillas follow him from Kerchak.
Jane and her father attempt to leave again, bidding farewell to Tarzan. Jane argues with her father that she belongs in London. “But you love him,” her father retorts. Her glove blows away and she makes up her mind, swimming back to shore. Her father soon follows and politely ignores his daughter kissing Tarzan. Two Worlds reprises, showing Tarzan’s new family, which includes Jane and Kala; Jane now in less obtrusive clothing. The movie closes on the echo of Tarzan’s yell.
While Tarzan is not a favorite of mine, I enjoy the characterizations and the music. It’s a fun soundtrack to listen to. Tarzan is a very good hero; he has both brains and brawn. I would argue that his mistakes that bring about the climax of the story are made out of innocence; he has never dealt with someone who is manipulative and deceitful. Who hasn’t gotten excited about something new and ignore the old for a while? While Kerchak was harsh, he was a leader of a troop of gorillas and saw Tarzan as an outsider and thus dangerous. (Though really, a baby? He was adorable and blew spit bubbles. It’s a bit like Jungle Book; even though Mowgli is young, he’ll grow into a man and man is dangerous…then one could get into the whole ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate…and I won’t).
Kala was a sweet mother and what would be gained from telling Tarzan that there were other creatures like him when they were dead and she was unaware new ones had come to the area. She had a little boy who was insecure enough as it was; she focused on what was similar, not what was different (a very good lesson, and not beaten over our heads like some other Disney parables). Jane…not my favorite Disney female, a little stuffy at first and a bit pompous, not letting the baby baboon have the drawing. But she’s smart and not afraid of hard work. She and Tarzan do make a good pair and I was happy that Tarzan chose to stay with his original family, and pleased that Jane chose to stay with him (because after the adventure she had, what else would compare? You are already fascinated with gorillas, now is your chance to study them full time).
There was a sequel in 2002, Tarzan and Jane, and a prequel, Tarzan II: The Legend Begins in 2005, along with a TV series, The Legend of Tarzan [and apparently a Broadway musical…no idea that existed]. I have not seen any of those films and I don’t recall the cartoon. Out of curiosity’s sake, I did watch the 2016 film The Legend of Tarzan, which involves the characters going back to Africa after being in England for several years. Being unfamiliar with the original book material, I was a bit confused by the film and it seemed to focus heavily on big action sequences. Though, the villain was stupid: he knows what Tarzan is like, so let’s piss him off.
As always, let me know if you have any questions or comments.
Next Time: The Emperor’s New Groove