Eric's Ten-Year Itch: Tarzan (June 18, 1999)

(Note: For background on the new column "Eric's Ten-Year Itch," see the first edition, about The Phantom Menace.)

The Disney animation renaissance that started with The Little Mermaid in 1989 was short-lived, delivering four genuine classics -- Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King were the others -- before petering out with 1995's drab Pocahontas. Later entries tended to be enjoyable enough at the moment, but none had much staying power. (When was the last time you or anyone you know watched 1997's Hercules?)

It was 10 years ago this week, in 1999, that things turned a corner. Having exhausted the limits of the Broadway-style musicals, where the characters burst into song, the Disney storytellers tried something new (well, new-ish) with Tarzan. Phil Collins was employed to write and perform songs that would play over the action, reinforcing the story's themes without actually requiring the Lord of the Jungle to hit any high notes. The idea of simply not including any songs at all was apparently too drastic to contemplate; musical numbers had been a hallmark of Disney cartoons ever since Snow White sang about the day when her prince would come.

I was pretty new to the business of film criticism when Tarzan came out, and I'd long been a Disney animation enthusiast. I saw Aladdin in the theater something like 13 times -- partly because I loved it, but also partly because I was a college freshman at the time, and it was playing at the campus theater, and tickets were only a dollar, and no one in the dorm had a car to go anywhere else, and so ... yeah. Beauty and the Beast -- the only animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, by the way -- remains one of my favorite movies of all time. I think 1996's Hunchback of Notre Dame is brilliant, though I acknowledge it probably shouldn't have been marketed to children.

So I was predisposed to liking Tarzan, which might explain why I gave it an A- even though my review reads more like a B, maybe a B+. (My inexperience with these things might also have been a factor. It's an art, finding the right score to encapsulate a 600-word review.) I wrote, for example:

The nutty sidekicks that have been the hallmark of Disney films are here, but their role is diminished... Much of the comic relief in the film ... is not especially funny. The film is not dark or somber; it just doesn't attempt comedy as much as you might expect, and what it does attempt often falls flat.

Then I added, "But it more than makes up for it in action... The animation is seamless and fluid, and by the end of [a particular sequence], you may feel embarrassed at having felt so much tension over just a cartoon."

The ensuing decade has seen a lot of advancements in animation, especially with computer-generated images, which the mostly hand-drawn Tarzan used only as a supplement. The action sequences lose a lot of their power on DVD and might seem less thrilling now anyway, given the other thrilling things we've seen cartoons do in the last 10 years. But at the time, many critics, including Janet Maslin and Roger Ebert, felt the same way I did about the movie's adventure scenes.

I was surprised, watching the film again now, how much I laughed at the humor that I previously said tended to fall flat. Why didn't 1999 Eric think the neurotic elephant was funny? What did 1999 Eric have against worrisome pachyderms?

TarzanThe parallels between this film and Disney's Beauty and the Beast seem unmissable, but if I noticed them the first time I didn't think they were worth mentioning. In both films, a macho hunter has a single-minded interest in capturing or killing the animalistic creature who, ironically, is more human than he is. Both films culminate in scenes where the hunter and his minions attack the creature's stronghold, with the hunter ignoring all other potential targets (who fight back tenaciously) and heading straight for his rival, who declines to kill him and in fact tries to save him from plunging to his death. (The hunter in Tarzan technically dies from hanging, not plummeting, but if the vine hadn't caught his neck he'd have hit the ground too hard to survive anyway. This movie is rated G, by the way.)

As a side note, I'm much more interested in anachronisms now than I was in the beginning. In Tarzan, Jane's explorer father says he wants to take Tarzan back to England to meet the queen (that would be Queen Victoria), Darwin, and Kipling. If Rudyard Kipling is a famous author, the film must be set sometime after about 1890 ... but Charles Darwin died in 1882. I guess Jane's dad hadn't heard the news yet.

At the time, Tarzan's $171 million was enough to make it the fourth highest-grossing cartoon of all time, behind The Lion King, Aladdin, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It's now No. 26, a result of computer animation becoming easier and cheaper, and the 'toon marketplace becoming saturated. In 2006, a stage musical based on the film opened on Broadway, earning terrible reviews and closing after a year. (That might sound like a long run, but it's embarrassing compared to the success Disney had had with Broadway versions of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.) With new songs by Phil Collins, this time the characters did sing, thus eliminating the one thing that had made the cartoon different.

What is it that makes one film a classic and another merely entertaining in the here and now? Tarzan strikes me as nothing more than a solid but unremarkable Disney cartoon, and I don't think it's entered the pantheon of timeless classics. Maybe its lack of sentimentality hurts it. Maybe a Disney film needs a certain level of real emotion. Maybe the characters need to sing after all, and maybe those songs shouldn't be written by Phil Effing Collins.


1999 Eric says: The tried-and-true formula works for Disney, and the animation -- which gets better each year, and reaches its zenith with Tarzan's lush forests and fantastic action sequences -- gives the films an added degree of quality.... Tarzan is a pleasure to watch, full of excitement and fun, and not over-heavy on the sentiment. Say what you will about Disney's quality compared to years past; this one is a solid addition by any standards. Grade: A-

2009 Eric says: Beautiful visuals, kinetic action, and suitable doses of goofy humor make this retelling of the classic story an entertaining ride. I doubt I'd see it 13 times, though, not even for a dollar a pop at the campus theater. Then again, I'm not a college freshman anymore, either.

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"Eric's Ten-Year Itch" runs on occasional Mondays, in rotation with "Eric's Time Capsule." You can visit Eric at his website, where the only Phil Collins song whose existence is acknowledged is "Sussudio."