A relative newcomer to the Disney line-up, "Tarzan" was released in 1999 and, as such, was not a particularly formative experience for me. All in all, I have a complex relationship with the movie: on the one hand, Phil Collins' voice is like a silver bell made from magic and pixie dust, and capable of extracting tears from my eyes at a mere three words into any given song; on the other hand, about half of this movie is comic relief faffing about by Rosie O'Donnell whom I have no beef with whatsoever (to my knowledge) but I'm not here for the comedy and it's strange to be pulled back and forth between heart-wrenching sobs and wishing the movie would GET ON WITH THE PLOT ALREADY.
And, of course, there's there's a lot of genuinely problematic things in the Tarzan story.
But first, some groundwork. I haven't read any of Burroughs writings, though I have read the Wikipedia page for Tarzan of the Apes, so there's that. And I've read "Jane" (as mentioned above) which was authorized by the Burroughs' estate and which I feel pretty confident guessing is better in every possible way. (Subjective opinion!) So let's dive into the immediate unfortunate implication that comes to mind when dealing with Noble Savage stories like Tarzan:
It's kind of racist.
Or, at least, that's my initial impression. If you watch Disney's Tarzan, you'll notice that there are zero people of color in this movie. None. At all. Jane and her father and villain Clayton are white. Tarzan is white. The ship crew -- both the good and the bad -- are white. And there are no people in Disney's Africa. At all. This strikes me as really bad form. It's like, "Hey, Africans! You've got a really groovy continent, you know that? Do you mind if we erase you entirely from it so we can stage an epic romance between some white people? Thanks!"
Now you might protest that Disney was doing its best, and... maybe they were. Maybe the paring down of the cast to just four humans is necessary from a storytelling standpoint: do we really need to see all the laborers who would have been necessary to set up the Porter's ridiculously huge camp? Wouldn't that introduce a lot of complex questions in a lighthearted kiddie movie, and with no real benefit since none of the characters would have been fleshed out to an adequate degree? Couldn't one-dimensional laborer characters who were also people of color simply reinforced prejudice instead of dismantling it?
But... then I have to cast a long glance at "George of the Jungle", which preceded "Tarzan" by two years, and which --- despite all its faults -- managed to include as many people of color in the first half of the movie as there are people of pallor and they get the best lines. Lots of them. Remember these guys?
I love those guys! And that's not even their best moment; that's just a quick YouTube search. And later we get quick but in-depth shots at a local prison, a local village, and local villagers regarding a FedEx truck with interest, but not awe or astonishment. The whole movie actually leaves the viewer with the impression that Africa has, you know, Africans in it, and that they're not primitive or backwards or stupid or anything else of the sort.
Of course, GotJ is set in the modern day; Tarzan is not. But I'm not sure that's even remotely an excuse.
But really, the whole Tarzan mythos is fraught with a lot of unfortunate implications. If you allow people of color to live in the jungle, then you have to explain why Tarzan is so startled at the appearance of white humans, and why he's so powerfully drawn to Jane as his One True Mate. Burroughs worked around this (apparently, based on the Wiki entry) by giving Tarzan an antagonistic relationship with the locals, and thus he couldn't seek a mate there; Maxwell worked around this by giving Tarzan a respectful-yet-distant relationship with the locals, coupled with a fear of sex (it's complicated), and thus he wouldn't seek a mate there; Disney worked around this by removing people from Africa entirely, and thus Jane really is the only woman in Africa for Tarzan. Probably not the best choice there. (GotJ worked around it, for the record, by having George unaware that his species even *had* females. But George is comedically unintelligent.)
So the Tarzan story has issues with race. And with feminism, at least until Maxwell came along. (Disney doesn't do much to correct this, in my opinion.) And yet, I understand the appeal of Tarzan. Tarzan embodies innocence (that's basically the whole point of the Noble Savage trope) and vulnerability by being cordoned off from the "civilized" -- read: ugly and brutal -- world. But he also embodies power and protection; he is lord of the wild places, and deeply and utterly devoted to his chosen mate. It's a powerful fantasy -- especially if you're feeling the strictures of civilization a little tightly. (A huge part of Maxwell's book centers around womens' clothing. In a good way, I thought.)
And it's a surprising to me that it is such a powerful fantasy, given that I'd live all of 30 minutes in the jungle (disability!) and I'd hate every minute of it (humidity! bugs! dirt! yuck!). And yet the fantasy still holds power for me, in ways that are hard to articulate.
So let's instead jump into the movie.
The movie opens with a ship burning down, but baby!Tarzan plus Pretty Mom and Sturdy Dad manage to not only make it out alive, but also to build a nifty Swiss Family Robinson tree-house. Phil Collins is singing his heart out here and I'm already blubbing; this blub fest is not helped by the flash to Kala and Kerchak losing their baby ape-cub to a hungry leopard. Kala sinks into a depression, but is jostled out of it when she hears baby!Tarzan crying from across the jungle. She visits the ransacked tree-house, sees the bodies of the parents where the leopard left their remains, and uncovers the cutest baby ever.
And it's worth pointing out that all of this is without words, if you don't count Phil Collins. It's Wall-E levels of impressive, as far as I'm concerned.
Anyway, Kala and Tarzan bond, and the leopard shows up, and Kala saves the baby. A nice touch is that when Kala is finally safe from the leopard, she bares her teeth in a really menacing gesture; I like a good momma-bear moment, I must confess. Kala returns to the family group and shows off her new baby, but Kerchak is not pleased. "It's not our kind," he says, and argues for the baby to be given over to the jungle to be killed.
Yeah, that's not going to bias the audience against Kerchak at all.
Kala pleads to keep the baby, even to the point of becoming something of a social outcast for the remainder of the movie. And I have to wonder: is this the first "Disney Mom" to make it to the end of the movie alive? Granted, she's an adoptive mother and Tarzan's biological mother has already bitten the big one, but I have to wonder.
But! There are points to be made! There's a lot of faffing about with Rosie O'Donnell and Tarzan gets into trouble trying to prove himself a worthy member of the tribe, which only backfires and ends with Kerchak being even more angry with him. Tarzan has angst and his mother teaches him a formative lesson: Racism is wrong!
And... well. It's a sweet scene. Kala deconstructs the ways in which they are similar: "I see two eyes like mine... and a nose here..." And when Tarzan's visual senses get in the way of the exercise, she tells him, "Close your eyes. Now forget what you see. What do you feel? [exchange of heartbeats] We're exactly the same."
I think this is a good lesson! But it's a lesson that occurs in a world where, as far as the viewer can tell, there are White People and there are Animals. And if we let the Animals stand in for "people of color", then we have a whole slew of problems besides the obvious animals-by-analogy one: Tarzan is faster, smarter, more resourceful, less prejudiced, more curious, more intelligent, more everything than the others. He's the best ape ever, because he's a higher form of life. (Well, biologically-speaking, he does have a bigger brain.) So the Animals must remain Animals and this becomes a story about racism that has white people standing in for the entirety of humanity. Issues!
Moving on. Tarzan grows up in another tear-jerking Phil Collins montage. When the leopard attacks Tarzan, Kerchak is there to defend him, possibly not as a "son", but definitely as a member of the tribe. When Kerchak goes down, Tarzan leaps into the fray and kills the leopard. There's a moment where Kerchak seems poised to finally acknowledge Tarzan as one of them, but a gunshot rings out through the forest and the gorillas -- sans the curious Tarzan -- beat a dignified retreat.
Jane is not a feminist character outside of Maxwell's re-imagining. She's not really one here, either, which is a pity because Disney already took plenty of liberties with the story so why not? She starts off well, standing up to Clayton and pointing out that his gunfire is scaring off the gorillas that they've come to study. Then Jane demonstrates a scholar's mind by joining in with her father to celebrate the confirmation of the theory that the gorillas nest in family groups -- but the point is made that it's the Professor's theory, not Jane's. Fine.
Clayton doesn't believe that gorillas can be social animals and instead describes them as wild and violent. Possibly another attempt at showing that Racism Is Bad, but it may just be the usual villain characterization. Then Jane separates from the group and sketches a baby baboon. When the baboon steals the sketch, she demonstrates a deft hand with children; first tricking the child for a chance to grab her sketch, then gently scolding it for making a fuss. But the baboon's parents are less pleased and attack Jane without provocation.
So we have an innocent white woman being chased by dark, violent, angry, unreasonable natives but they're Animals, so it's alright then. *sigh* I just keep thinking that Jane could have gotten into a spot of trouble with a natural disaster. Or even just met Tarzan without being rescued at all! But, no, it's innocent white woman in need of rescue. (For the record, Maxwell's Jane is attacked by a leopard, but the attack is orchestrated by the villain Conrath.)
Tarzan saves Jane rather than taking the side of the baboons, which underscores that he's the intelligent-and-tolerant guy in the jungle. The chase itself has a good bit (Jane uses her umbrella to deflect attacks and Tarzan helps bolster the umbrella with his hands, so they're instinctively working together) and a bad bit (Tarzan rolls his eyes at Jane at one point, probably for comic relief, but really?) and then all is safe forever.
And this is a tough scene. Because there's obviously going to be an undercurrent of sexual threat here; the Tarzan mythos requires him to be openly drawn to Jane from the get-go and Jane doesn't know anything about this stranger who doesn't know anything about society or social conventions. This Jane goes into a childish sing-song about being "in a tree with a man who talks to monkeys," and I suppose that the charitable interpretation is that she's under a lot of stress. Tarzan touches her feet, which tickles her, and her bubbling laughter of "get off, get off" suddenly turns harsh when he tries to peer under her skirt. "Get off!" she says sternly, and gives him a nice round kick for his troubles. He shakes himself, obviously unharmed, and she says "it serves you right."
This is about the most spunk we'll get from Jane, though.
Tarzan sees her hand and hears her heartbeat and remembers the words of his mother Kala. But it is he who takes the initiative to communicate with Jane, pointing at himself and saying "Tarzan". Jane has to be the one who is taught -- slowly -- how to identify herself to him. And that makes me sad, because that could have been a place for Jane to shine, but instead she's the one being the student to the ridiculously perfect Tarzan. Ah well.
Now for more faffing about with Rose O'Donnell. She and a cabal of friends visit the Porter's camp -- which is HUGE, by the way -- and trash the place to a jazzy tune. From a movie perspective, it adds little; from an unfortunate implications perspective, it reinforces that Tarzan is the only person in the jungle with an interest in learning and a healthy respect for peoples' property. Whereas he will learn permanent knowledge from these precious English artifacts, the apes will destroy them to make transient music.
Tarzan returns with Jane and she has a moment where it seems she will connect with the apes, but Kerchak comes barreling into camp, threatens Jane, and orders everyone back into the jungle. He's right, of course -- Clayton is actually there to kidnap the apes and sell them to zoos -- but by menacing the innocent Jane, once again the impression is created that Tarzan is the only Not Racist in the jungle. This is underlined when Kerchak says he won't risk the safety of the tribe and Tarzan bursts out "why are you threatened by anyone different from you?!"
When his mother Kala tries to stop him from stalking away, Tarzan asks "why didn't you tell me there were creatures like me," thus underscoring the fact that there are no humans in Africa. At least not on the coast where Tarzan resides.
Jane is reunited with her father and Clayton, and she lapses into a frenzied babble that makes almost no sense at all. When she gets to the bit with Tarzan, she loses her train of thought and becomes positively soporific with the memory. This does not strike me as overly strong characterization. When she draws Tarzan on the blackboard, her father notes her attraction and asks if she and the blackboard would like a moment alone. It's a humorous moment, but one which underscores that Jane... doesn't seem to know what she wants out of life. Maxwell handles this well, but Disney I feel does not, or not as well as I'd like. If only they'd spent more time on Jane and done more with her than making her seem so... unsure and vacillating.
Tarzan drops into camp and Jane saves his life. Clayton attempts to communicate with Tarzan and points out that he knows where the gorillas are. When his attempts at teaching fail, Jane takes over, and we get... ANOTHER MONTAGE! Living! Learning! Loving! Worried mothers! Jane slowly shedding clothing! Time passes!
White people show up and load the Porters' possessions on board. Tarzan asks Jane to stay; she asks him to come back with her, forever. The two arrive at an impasse, and Jane runs off tearfully. Clayton manages to convince Tarzan that if Jane sees gorillas, she'll stay forever. Tarzan asks Rosie O'Donnell to distract Kerchak by dressing up as Jane and being chased through the jungle, proving that Kerchak is violent and aggressive rather than defensively moving his family back away from the menace. Once Kerchak is out of the picture, the other gorillas are accepting of Jane and her father, at least once they start imitating the gorillas' posture and language.
Kerchak bursts in on the scene and attacks the humans; Tarzan holds him off and Kerchak accuses him of betrayal. Kala steps in and takes Tarzan to the old tree-house, to learn his heritage for the first time. With heart-wrenching sadness, she tells him "I just want you to be happy, whatever you decide." When Tarzan comes out dressed as an Englishman, Kala sobs and he tells her that she will always be his mother.
Tarzan travels to the ship with Jane, who is still wrestling with her feelings for him. The crew mutinies and locks them all in the cargo area while Clayton goes to round up the apes. Tarzan tries to escape and Jane begs him to stop, since it's "no use". Luckily, Rosie O'Donnell shows up with an elephant.
Violence! The white men show up with guns and nets and pack the gorillas into cages. I really hope this isn't analogous to slavery because then we're back to Animals = People of Color. Tarzan busts onto the scene with a stampede of elephants and announces that he's come home. The men take Kala, and Jane goes off on her own to save her; she takes out one by herself, the second man is taken out by her friends the baboons, and a third man who creeps up behind her is taken out by Tarzan while Jane remains oblivious to the danger. Not sure what the Action Girl scorecard is there.
Clayton grazes Tarzan with a bullet; Kerchak charges Clayton to save Tarzan and gets shot for his trouble. Naturally, this makes Tarzan the new leader of the gorillas. (Are there any boy gorillas in this tribe? It doesn't matter; Tarzan is a Human and therefore The Best. Because shut up that's why.) Clayton hounds Tarzan into the canopy, bragging that "After I get rid of you, rounding up your little ape family will be all too easy." This is depressingly true, and we're at that usual White Savior point where only the White Man can save all the locals. Yes, he's human and they're Animals, but they're remarkably intelligent animals. Why aren't they beating a swift retreat or launching a meaningful counter-offensive? I don't know much about gorillas, though.
Tarzan corners Clayton with the gun and Clayton tells him to shoot him and "be a man". Tarzan angrily replies "not a man like you" and flings the gun away. Then, through a complex series of events, and because this is Disney, Clayton foolishly orchestrates his own death so that the heroes won't have blood on their hands. (Is there a trope for this? There should be. Disney villains are practically suicidal at the end.)
Tarzan has a moment with Kerchak, in which Kerchak asks forgiveness and takes all the blame. "Forgive me for not understanding that you have always been one of us." And I can't help but wrinkle up my nose; I mean, this isn't Tarzan's fault per se, but it's not Kerchak's either by a long shot. Having him assert at the eleventh hour that Tarzan was right all along isn't floating with me. The gorillas walk off into the jungle and the Professor moves to follow them, but Jane halts him.
Jane and Tarzan share a final farewell before she piles into the boat to go back to England. Her father tells her that she should stay. She argues that her place is back home, with people, and he counters "but you love him." And... it's true. She does. But we've just had an entire movie of Jane not making up her mind on anything and now at this final, crucial hour it's her father that flat-out tells her that she's in love. (At least in GotJ, Ursula's mother is being dismissive of the notion and that's what triggers the realization in Ursula that, no really, she does love George. Again, that movie? Two years younger than this one.)
"Go on," he says. And she does. And it suddenly impacts on me that she's still wearing eyeshadow. What.
Jane kisses Tarzan and then nervously pulls away. The onus is on him to start the kiss again; she's too shy to be the aggressor anymore. Her father flings himself into the surf to stay with them, and then we cut to Acrobat Jane, cuddling with Tarzan through the treetops, being caught by him, being cradled in his arms by him, and being at least a little bit more badass than most of the rest of the film, so yay.
I like Disney!Jane, but I am really saddened by the fact that there seems to be a lot of wasted potential here. If Disney was trying to stay true to the damsel-in-distress Jane, I think it was a mistake; they changed enough else of the story, so why draw the line at modernizing the heroine a little? Jane comes off as a hanger-on to her Professor father, and a lot of the good grief, she had to be brave and strong-willed to get to Africa at all characterization is lost in the shuffle. Tarzan is the one who initiates their "Me Tarzan, you Jane" conversation; Clayton is the one who suggests teaching him more. Her father is the one who tells her she loves Tarzan and to stay with him. I don't think there's a single moment of Jane asserting what she wants in this movie, without first being prompted by a man. Realistic? Yes. But I expect more.
I want to like "Tarzan". The visuals are stunning, the Phil Collins music is intense. The surrounding fantasy is visceral and appealing to me: I like the idea of a powerful jungle-king protector, draped only in a loincloth and dead-set on meeting my every need while the rest of humanity can go fuck itself. (Sometimes I take my introvertedness seriously.)
But it's hard to look past the fact that this movie chose to remove people of color out of Africa in order to have a cleaner, neater backdrop against which to play this fantasy. It's hard to overlook the fact that this is a movie that acts like it's about racism (Tarzan is one of them!) and yet has the non White People once again having All The Prejudice. Jane and her father immediately accept the gorillas as their equals; the gorillas fear and hate the humans in return. And the leader of the Prejudiced Animals -- despite having made seriously good points about risky behavior and individualism versus social responsibility -- gamely takes all the blame on him at the end despite it not being his fault at all. What.
And the thing is, they could have fixed this stuff. At least 30 minutes of this movie is comic relief faffing about that adds nothing to the plot. Cut that, tighten up the message, give Jane a little more steel in her spine, and away you go. But they didn't. It feels lazy.
It's strange to watch something like this -- something that plays the Tarzan story straight -- and then watch George of the Jungle, which is far more comedic and yet manages to be more serious. Same Disney label, two years prior, and with a heroine that talks in a baby-talk cadence most of the movie... and yet it ended up being more friendly to women and people of color than this movie.
That blows my mind a little bit.
As does this.