Does Anyone Remember That 25 Years Ago, Disney’s Tarzan Was a Really Big Hit?

Movies Features Disney
Does Anyone Remember That 25 Years Ago, Disney’s Tarzan Was a Really Big Hit?

No one particularly associates 1999, or the late ’90s in general, as a banner era for Walt Disney Feature Animation. The five-year period from 1989 to 1994 produced a quartet of Disney’s New Classics, and at the time it seemed like the company spent the remainder of the decade chasing that success, primarily – presumably because of the long lead time animation requires – by adapting a series of myths, legends and iconic fictions. These movies, including Hercules, Mulan and (improbably) The Hunchback of Notre Dame more or less attempted to replicate the style of 1992’s Aladdin: dashing hero (or occasionally heroine), fancy computer-assisted action-adventure set in a long-ago time period, ample contemporary comic sidekickery and Broadway-style songs. In 1999, that cycle came to an end with Tarzan, and the new century would begin with a mishmash: the Lion King successor turned slapstick romp The Emperor’s New Groove, the sci-fi adventure stories of Atlantis and Treasure Planet, and the wonderfully unclassifiable Lilo & Stitch. Suddenly, it was hard to tell if Disney was pivoting, panicking or both at once.

That early-2000s cycle was likely the result of Disney Animation’s ship being too large and expensive to steer nimbly through choppy waters. But it’s surprising in retrospect; looking at the movies on either side of it, you’d be forgiven for assuming Tarzan was a financial disappointment that caused a major rethink at the studio. But quite to the contrary: In 1999, it was the highest-grossing Disney cartoon since The Lion King, and another movie wouldn’t vault over it for 11 years. Beyond Disney’s own roster, it wound up the sixth-highest-grossing movie of 1999 at the North American box office, just a hair behind The Matrix and well ahead of The Mummy, The Blair Witch Project and almost certainly whatever your non-Matrix favorite of that all-star year happens to be.

Money isn’t everything, of course – never forget that Chicken Little made roughly the same amount of money as Lilo & Stitch – but a Disney movie typically needs to be, yes, Chicken Little-level terrible to get the Tarzan treatment. More people saw Tarzan in movie theaters than saw Lilo & Stitch, Mulan, Hercules, Hunchback, or, for that matter, Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid. And almost all of these titles have more prominence in the company’s pantheon in terms of merchandise, Disney Parks presence, likelihood of turning up in a montage of classics, and so on.

Well, maybe not Hunchback, but that one’s weirdness assures that it will always have its defenders. Less so Tarzan, which is not particularly weird. On a technical level, it’s Disney Feature Animation reaching a kind of apex in its merging of the work of well-appointed hand-drawn artists with slicker computer-animation technology, allowing the movie to move faster and more exhilaratingly than many of its 2-D ancestors. This is literalized in the movie’s then-ballyhooed action sequences, which send Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn) zipping through the jungle like a cross between Tony Hawk, Spider-Man and a sleek monkey-man, using tech deemed Deep Canvas to create three-dimensional-looking backgrounds with the texture of more traditional animation. 25 years on, it still looks terrific – maybe moreso, because current attempts to reverse-engineer this mixture, with computers now simulating 2-D-style character animation rather than just environments, tend to come across more self-conscious, as in the recent Disney feature Wish. There’s an unmistakable human touch to the musculature of Tarzan’s ape-like posture, to the impossible jut of his chin, and to the romance-cover-ready ways his body intertwines (chastely, but sexily) with Jane (Minnie Driver).

Yet for all Tarzan does right, it may be best-remembered – in film circles, anyway – for its insistence on clinging to Disney tradition in a few crucial areas, most notably its music. In a baby-step away from its decade of musicals, Disney allowed songs from Phil Collins to serve as a pop-style single-artist soundtrack, rather than being performed diegetically within the movie – making a single exception, as one does, to let Rosie O’Donnell scat-sing. (She plays Tarzan’s ape bestie.) Even ignoring – as one does – Rosie O’Donnell scat-singing, however, Simon & Garfunkel this song-score is not. The songs do plenty to soften and undermine the intensity of the movie’s otherwise wordless opening eight minutes. They’re less intrusive over the montages, but the movie is so well-animated that Collins can’t really compete. The best they can hope for is harmless, and that went out the window (at least from a broader film-history perspective) when “You’ll Be in My Heart” emerged victorious from perhaps the strongest group of Best Original Song nominees of the past quarter-century. Its Oscar win involved somehow beating the raucous “Blame Canada” from the South Park movie, the heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2 and the plaintive, crucially placed “Save Me” from Magnolia.

On one hand, it’s totally unfair; Phil Collins shouldn’t have to happen to anyone, be they animators or other songwriters. But maybe it’s also indicative of why such a big 1999 hit might look slightly diminished with age. The Disneyfied version of Edgar Rice Burroughs feels a little skimpy, running 82 minutes before credits, at a time when Disney cartoons could have started stretching their legs a little beyond that 90-minute mark. To keep the story compact, the movie eliminates Tarzan’s trip back to London; fair enough that the studio wanted to keep the story in a less familiar, more animal-friendly location, reinforcing the apes who adopted him as a baby as Tarzan’s true family, but it feels like a pulled punch, especially on the heels of a similar elision in Pocahontas four years earlier – an attempt to preordain an easier, happier ending without putting the character through anything too emotionally conflicted or confusing. It’s sweet to see Jane joining Tarzan to swing through the jungle in the movie’s finale, and satisfying to see Clayton (Brian Blessed) meet a particularly gruesome end – maybe the peak of Disney finding nastier variations on its archetypal “falling” deaths. But the movie’s resolution doesn’t always feel like a proper reconciliation of Tarzan’s animal family and human DNA.

Revisited now, with access to more of the 21st century’s animation history, Tarzan’s rejection of that messiness, the way he’s able to simply select Jane from humanity and otherwise remain lord of the apes without setting foot in the world of his birth, feels thematically fitting, if not narratively satisfying. Tarzan was one of the final peaks of traditional animation as a cultural force; later that year, Toy Story 2 exceeded its predecessor in both quality and box office grosses, confirming that computer animation was not going to be a 3D-style fad (and could also lead to a heretofore unseen franchising that had previously been consigned to direct-to-VHS spinoffs, of which Tarzan spawned two). It wouldn’t be fair to describe Tarzan as a head-in-sand moment for Disney. Making a formulaic but technically impressive family-friendly adventure was exactly what they were supposed to be doing, and at the time, it paid off handsomely. The midrange-Disney result handily outstrips plenty of 2024 cartoons. Strange, then, to see a supposedly timeless story brought to the cusp of the millennium, only to become a relic of years already past.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, Vulture, and, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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