First Theatrical Release: June 16, 1999
First Home Viewing Release: February 1, 2000
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Where I Found It: My Big Box o’ Disney Love
Bechdel Test Score: Failed. Female characters include Kala, Terk, Tantor’s mother, and Jane. Terk and Kala talk to each other, but only about Tarzan.
Watching Tarzan in quick succession with all the movies that came before it, I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed a bit like a mashup of The Jungle Book (boy raised by animals), Beauty & the Beast (girl falls for a man with animal qualities, not to mention the similarities between Clayton and Gaston), Pocahontas (an outsider comes to more deeply appreciate the “natural world” through romance), and The Lion King (boy strives for father’s approval and takes his place as king in the end.)
In particular, Disney seems to redeem its disenfranchised, ineffectual portrayal of Mowgli in The Jungle Book through the character of Tarzan. Disney’s Tarzan resembles Kipling’s Mowgli more closely than he resembles Burrough’s Tarzan, who was something of a prototypical “wild man” savage. Instead, likeKipling’s Mowgli, Tarzan is totally at home in the jungle, boldly confident climbing and swinging from trees and taking on fierce predators. Unlike Kipling’s Mowgli, Tarzan is not universally accepted by the jungle creatures, most notably his adopted “father,” Kerchak.
Despite all these allusions to former Disney fare, Tarzan still manages to bring some unique movie moments to viewers.
Two Worlds, One Family
I couldn’t watch this movie without thinking of the following Confession from the Disney Confessions blog:
It gave me a deeper appreciation for the movie’s familial themes. I choked up when Kala lost her baby, and when she discovered Tarzan after his parents had died. (I didn’t remember his parents actually being alive at the beginning of this movie — I thought it started with Kala’s discovery of Tarzan as an orphan, and seeing the life the family was building for themselves makes their deaths especially tragic.) As intriguing as Tarzan’s relationship with Jane is, it’s his relationship with his family that drives the movie as he struggles to fit in, be accepted, protect them, and ultimately lead them.
In a long string of classic movies known for cutting mothers out of the picture, I love that Kala gets her own character arc in Tarzan, from the loss of her baby to the healing she experiences by adopting Tarzan, to her somewhat questionable decision not to tell him that there are other creatures like him in the world and her fear that she will lose him to this world when Jane and her father arrive in the jungle.
She is a good mother who raises a good son, but who still makes some mistakes along the way. Just like every mother. After so many missing/dead or “placeholder” mothers with little personality (i.e.: Sarabi, Aurora’s mom, Mulan’s mother), this relationship at last feels like a loving tribute to mothers everywhere. And it’s about time — who did Disney think was handing over their money and hunkering down in dark theaters with their kids for all these years?
You are here to find gorillas. Not indulge some girlish fantasy!
Jane is one of my favorite Disney leading ladies. Although she doesn’t score points for independence (Tarzan makes his introduction by rescuing her), she makes up for it in personality. I would happily watch an entire movie about Jane’s pursuit of knowledge, and I love that she comes to Africa with her professor father because she is clearly involved in his research and considered an intellectual equal. I love that she makes field notes and sketches throughout her experience and that she marches to the beat of her own drum (I wonder if she was homeschooled?) And like Tarzan, I would very much like to hang out in that tent with Jane and all those stacks of books.
In the Broadway musical, Jane gets a song called Waiting for This Moment that captures her spirit perfectly. Usually we only hear this level of passion from Disney ladies when they are singing about their man or giving us their “wish” song (“Reflection” from Mulan, “Part of Your World” from TLM, etc.) But for Jane, it’s intellectual curiosity that jazzes her up. She may be Disney’s first bona fide geek!
Because Disney makes Jane interesting in her own right, it turns Edgar Rice Burroughs’ portrayal of her on its head. In the book, Burroughs employs Jane to show how, deep down, even refined and sophisticated women really want a man who is an “animal” (gagging), no doubt a counterbalance to the repressed sexual norms at the time of the book’s initial writing. But Disney’s Jane is clearly drawn to Tarzan not because he satisfies some sort of “wild man” fantasy, but because he piques her curiosity in the way he straddles the wild and human worlds. She is interested in him on an intellectual level because he provides a link to the world she is passionate about exploring, but she falls for him for the reasons most people fall in love: she admires that he is good at what he “does,” that he treats her well, and that he makes her see the world in a new way. Of course, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that his lack of respect for “personal boundaries” allows tantalizing physical contact that would not have been proper back in Victorian London, or that he runs around pretty much naked and showin’ off his great bod.
With Tarzan and Jane, Disney has perfected the cross-cultural romance that it somewhat blundered in Pocahontas. The draw between the two characters is easier to fathom, because each of them represents a world the other was fascinated by/curious about before they even met each other. Unlike the culturally insensitive settlers in Pocahontas, Jane and her father arrive on the shores of Africa with an enthusiastic desire to truly understand ape culture, and they never presume to know more about the jungle than Tarzan or its other inhabitants do. They don’t rely on the cop out of “magic” (“Listen with your heart …”) to understand one another and must communicate wordlessly in the beginning, then go through the painstaking process of actually learning to use the other’s language. This allows the romance to unfold much more organically, as they presumably spend hours in one another’s company just attempting to cross the cultural divide. In some ways, this makes Tarzan and Jane’s romance feel more intimate than any other Disney love story, particularly when we see the way it affects Tarzan even when they are apart. Anyone who has ever fallen in love, whether it was requited or not, can recognize what Tarzan is feeling in the wordless scene where he lies amongst his sleeping family, breathing heavy and staring up into the stars. So much of falling in love happens when we are away from the object of our affection and unable to shake them from our minds.
Love makes the whole world feel as if it is opening up before us, and in the case of Tarzan and Jane, this is actually true. Which is why Disney’s fatal flaw in this movie is its oversimplified resolution to this couple’s unique courtship.
I just know there’s something bigger out there
Just as Jane is drawn to Tarzan because she is fascinated by the natural world in which he lives so effortlessly, Tarzan is drawn to Jane because she represents a gateway into the world that would have been his in different circumstances. He is clearly just as intellectually curious as Jane is, staying up long after Jane and Professor Porter have fallen asleep, flipping through slides of the human world in a way that is almost manic.
Tarzan’s fascination with the human world struck me as a metaphor for growing up. There comes a certain point in adolescence when suddenly the world of adults, once existing on the mere periphery of a child’s existence, becomes urgently relevant. I touched on my own experience of this a bit in my Aladdin post, but I remember other experiences around that time during which I carefully studied the adults around me — my older sister, my teachers, my mom, my aunts, trying to decipher what it meant to be an adult and whether I could be happy in that new world. Tarzan seems to be making a similar study, although his circumstances require that he make this study from afar, through pictures and books and whatever Jane has told him. Still, discovering that this world exists is so crucial to the development of Tarzan’s identity that Kala’s keeping it from him evokes Tarzan’s first-ever angry words toward his mother: “Why didn’t you tell me there were creatures who look like me?”
Tarzan’s decision to stay in the jungle at the end of the movie doesn’t feel like an instance of him being true to himself or a fitting resolution to the movie’s family themes. Instead, it feels like Tarzan let fear truncate his emotional and intellectual development. The entire movie is about him trying to reconcile the “gorilla” and “human” parts of himself, but his exposure to humans is so limited that he never fully comes to understand it, much less integrate it into his personality. While I do not think Tarzan would have been happy in Victorian society, I think his failure to at least explore the lives of other humans is a cop-out that stunts his growth, even if staying behind means he gets to be “top gorilla” following Kerchak’s death. What’s more, after Jane has succumbed to living on his turf and deferring to Tarzan as the expert on his home territory, he never affords her the opportunity to do the same. He never sees her in her “native” environment, and thus cannot fully know or understand her. Without this, Tarzan and Jane’s relationship will be forever unbalanced, and the final shot of the movie hints at this, as we see Tarzan step into the foreground while Jane demurs behind him.
While her intellectual curiosity and her passion for Africa may make staying behind seem like the “right” choice for Jane, I question her happiness in the long run. Jane and her father seem motivated to travel to Africa in the first place because they want to bring a deeper understanding of it back to other people. Isn’t that the whole purpose of research? Not to use your intellectual pursuit as a way to hide from the world, but to bring your discoveries back to the world and thus enrich it?
By absconding to Africa, Jane and her father both abandon their intellectual goals and the good their research and perspective could have done others. They trade rigorous study for lazy escapism. Jane stops grooming Tarzan to be able to live with his own kind and instead frolics through the trees with him, giving up all the trappings of civilization.
I just can’t help thinking about how miserable she will be when she contracts some tropical disease or has to give birth without the aid of a midwife or the social support of other human parents. While I don’t see long-term happiness for Tarzan in society, I don’t see long-term happiness for Jane away from it, either. Especially since she has to live with the knowledge that her bold jungle man was never brave enough to enter her world the way she allowed herself to be totally swallowed by his.
And that, sadly, brings me to the end of Disney’s Renaissance era, probably the most enjoyable 10 weeks of this entire project. I don’t know if cultural historians have coined an official term for the next 10 years in Disney cinema history, but I think of them as The Forgotten Years, since hardly any merchandise or other evidence of them continues to exist. Most of them I’ve only seen once and have forgotten myself. Next week is Fantasia 2000, which I will be seeing for the first time ever. I hope to find some forgotten gems in the weeks ahead.