TarzancoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
1999, 88 min., Color
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: B+

I’ve seen just about every Tarzan movie made, and have to confess that I still have a soft spot for the Johnny Weismueller films. But Disney’s animated Tarzan represents one of the strongest narratives to tackle the legend of an orphaned baby raised by apes. Some of those early Tarzan movies now seem a little racist, and Disney solved that potential problem by not including any Africans at all. It’s apes vs. white hunters and a leopard in this animated feature, which begins by intercutting scenes of how baby Tarzan came to be orphaned and how one ape, Kala (Glenn Close), lost her baby.

Because we get talking animals, we also get a better appreciation for the relationships that young Tarzan forged, and because it’s animation we get a Tarzan who is more believably a combination of animal and human movement than would be humanly possible with actors.

It’s a jungle out there, and Disney makes no attempt to soft-peddle that part. There are plenty of Bambi’s mother moments. But the filmmakers do balance any naturalism and menace in the movie with humor, songs, cute characters, and the eye-popping animation that makes the jungle itself come alive. Tarzan was the first full-length Disney animated feature to spotlight a single performer (Phil Collins) for the entire soundtrack—something that DreamWorks would imitate a year later when they used Elton John for all the songs in The Road to El Dorado—and that continuity also added to the film’s uniqueness. One of Collins’ songs, “You’ll Be in My Heart,” won an Oscar for Best Original Song.  

Then again, a Disney movie floats or sinks on the basis of its characters. How much personality do they have? How likeable are they? How distinctly original are they? In this too, Tarzan makes the grade. Whether it’s young Tarzan and ape-buddy Terk, the animation and the voice talents—Alex D. Linz, Tony Goldwyn and Rosie O’Donnell—really give those characters life. So does Minnie Driver as Jane, Tarzan’s love interest, and Lance Henriksen as Kerchak, the fierce alpha ape who provides more narrative interest. I’ve heard that some critics felt that the hunter Clayton (Brian Blessed) wasn’t a strong enough villain, but come on, people, this is an adaptation and that’s the hand the directors were dealt. I thought Chris Buck and Kevin Lima did a great job of spreading the villainy around, so that we get two points of menace: the leopard and the hunter.

TarzanscreenNothing, though, stands out as much as the animation in this Disney gem. Some sequences of Tarzan “riding” the trees or a water segment involving hippos and a young ape-boy will be forever etched in memory, they’re so well done and so full of “wow factor.” That’s the way much of the film plays out.

Many believe that Tarzan was the last film made during a Silver Age or Disney Renaissance that began 10 years earlier with The Little Mermaid, and Tarzan remains visually stunning because Disney used a process they called “Deep Canvas,” which gave the jungle a realistic 3-D look. In addition, supervising animator Glen Keane gave Tarzan the ability to “surf” the jungle canopy instead of restricting him to vine-swinging—an inspiration he got from his skateboarding and surfing son. It was like bulking up an old legend, and this animated Tarzan is about as buff as anyone who ever played Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fictional hero. And this film looks absolutely terrific on Blu-ray.