What is Tarzan's Place In the Disney Animation Canon 25 Years Later?

The New Animated Movie Tarzan
The New Animated Movie Tarzan / Getty Images/GettyImages

Just as the July 1986 Wembley Stadium performance marked the end of an era for Queen, June 1999’s Tarzan closed a chapter in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Throughout the 1990s (save for occasional box office duds like The Rescuers Down Under and Hercules), Disney’s animated films were unstoppable at the box office. Projects like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King touched every conference of pop culture. There’s a reason this decade was known as the Disney Renaissance. That epoch of the company’s history would come to a screeching halt with the arrival of the 21st century. A slew of box office flops and critically savaged titles torpedoed Disney’s animation reputation. This came just as a new wave of competition emerged in the form of companies devoted to computer animation. The age of Shrek really couldn't; have come at a worse time.

Before that turmoil emerged, though, the Disney Renaissance got one last hurrah with Tarzan. Released in the final year of the 20th century, Tarzan was a massive box office hit and scored decent marks from critics. Those were the qualities that defined its reputation when it first opened in theaters. 25 years later, what kind of place has Tarzan carved out in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios?

One interesting aspect of Tarzan compared to its Disney Animation brethren is its source material. This studio has typically adapted vintage fairy tales or legends that are firmly in the public domain. Disney Animation Studios doesn’t do modern book adaptations (save for Big Hero 6, a property made by sister company Marvel Comics), nor does it draw from other forms of modern media. Taking Aladdin or Rapunzel and just using those universally known characters for a movie works just fine. Tarzan, meanwhile, was a character created in the 20th century by author Edgar Rice Burroughs. ERB Inc. owned the copyright to this character. If you wanted to make a Hercules or Mulan movie, you could do so without asking anyone for permission. Tarzan, meanwhile, required more legal loopholes to jump through.

Even today with several original Tarzan books by Burroughs firmly in the public domain, this loincloth-donned man is staunchly protected by ERB Inc. That quality is important to consider in why Tarzan isn’t as ubiquitous today in the Disney empire as even other 90s Mouse House titles. There’s never been rumblings about a live-action remake of this Disney feature. Many modern app games utilizing characters from the Disney Animation library, like Disney Emoji Blitz, are forbidden from using these characters. Tarzan’s Treehouse in Disneyland has recently been transformed into the Adventureland Treehouse. Disney is more interested in exploiting prosperities like Encanto and Frozen it fully owns rather than something it shares like Tarzan. 

It doesn’t help, of course, that Disney’s attempts to exploit Tarzan in the 2000s didn’t yield oodles of cash. An animated TV show adaptation never took off. A DTV sequel in 2005 was made more out of obligation than anything else. A Broadway musical adaptation, meanwhile, came and went rather quickly. If Tarzan had taken off as a Frozen-sized multimedia franchise, Disney executives would’ve undoubtedly been happy to work with ERB Inc. on all things Tarzan.

However, these spin-offs fizzling out made that legal issue an extra big problem. Inevitably, this led to the Tarzan world scoring minimal references in modern Disney media. No Ralph Breaks the Internet cameos for Tantor or Clayton, though these characters did show up in Disney’s 2023 short Once Upon a Studio. This wrinkle in the existence of Tarzan has also led to the title being an anomaly in the realm of Disney Animation Studios titles. In 1999, Tarzan was openly building on the legacy of other adaptations of the original Burroughs stories from competition studios. This animated Tarzan wasn’t referencing projects like Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan or Lord of the Apes.

However, this feature did hope to capitalize on how familiar moviegoers were with Tarzan as a big-screen attraction. 25 years later, it’s hard to imagine Disney doing that kind of exploitation. The studio's primary focus on cynical exploitation of older media is endless sequels or cameos from Disney Princesses. Building off works from Warner Bros and MGM? That’s not in the cards anymore.

Tarzan is a bit of a relic compared to 2024 standards for Disney Animation Studios titles. However, it did influence several 21st century movies from the Disney canon. Most notably, the movie served as the directorial debut for longtime Disney animator Chris Buck (Kevin Lima also helmed Tarzan). Buck would go on to helm, alongside Jennifer Lee, a little movie called Frozen for Walt Disney Animation Studios. He and Lee would also return to helm Frozen II, meaning Buck has directed two of the most lucrative features ever for this label. That prosperous directing here began all the way back in 1999 with Tarzan.

It's also interesting to consider Tarzan's relationship to movies that directly preceded it. Namely, Tarzan, though by no means an intimate movie, was much smaller in scope than the four “epics” in the Disney Animation Canon it followed up. Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Mulan are each sprawling titles occupying expansive locales. The lead characters of those movies travel across many different environments and often fight hordes of angry Parisian villagers, titans, or rival soldiers. Tarzan, meanwhile, is confined to just the main character’s jungle home. Stories from the original Tarzan books about this character traveling to London are excluded. Everything is confined to just the trees and treacherous terrain Tarzan calls home. 

That more intimate scope likely helped Tarzan stand out more to moviegoing audiences a bit exhausted with the crowded casts of Disney projects like Pocahontas or Hercules. This 1999 feature offering up largely non-diegetic musical numbers from Phil Collins also gave it a sense of discernible personality compared to other 1990s Disney Animation fare. The formula and structure of typical Disney musicals had grown familiar by 1999. Having tunes like “Strangers Like Me” play to montages rather than be crooned by on-screen characters subverted audience expectations for how these animated titles played out.

These qualities undoubtedly helped give Tarzan something unique that boosted its box office profile. Even so, it also crystallized some recurring problems in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon at that time. Chiefly, Tarzan still has two (three if one counts Jane’s goofy father) comic sidekicks. That’s a step down from the horde of comic sidekicks that dominated Hercules, granted. However, that still means a lot of screentime in Tarzan is dedicated to Rosie O’Donnell and Wayne Knight trying their hardest to become the next incarnation of the Genie in Aladdin. That Robin Williams character was a lighting-in-a-bottle character Disney Animation constantly tried to recreate. Tarzan continues the streak of that mission ending in failure.

Tarzan’s other notable historic achievement is ramping up the presence of CG in Walt Disney Animation Studios features. This label had been employing digital effects work as early as the mid-1980s in movies like The Great Mouse Detective. By the late 1990s, CG was being used to realize entire characters like the Hydra in Hercules or large armies of characters in The Lion King or Mulan. For Tarzan, this technique was taken to the next level with the Deep Canvas technology. This tool allowed hand-drawn characters to inhabit entirely digital environments. Deep Canvas proved especially useful in depicting Tarzan “surfing” across treetops, with those various branches being realized through a computer.

The melding of CG and other mediums of artistic expression would dominate subsequent Disney Animation projects, like Dinosaur (blending CG prehistoric critters with live-action backdrops) and sci-fi projects with hand-drawn animated characters like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. In the case of Tarzan, some of these digital backdrops still look impressive today, especially ones used to realize natural environments like trees. Others, like the nursery where baby Tarzan is discovered by his adopted mother, merely look like artificial DVD menu screens today. The weakest digital elements of Tarzan’s backgrounds have aged considerably worse than, say, Disney Animation’s Xerox-animated output.

Tarzan would be a cautionary tale in some respects for relying too heavily on digital technology to carry the day. Subsequent movies like Dinosaur and Chicken Little would especially succumb to that problem in much more severe ways. However, the most astonishing blending of CG and hand-drawn animation, much like the 2002 classic Treasure Planet, suggests an alternate timeline where Disney let both mediums of animation flourish. They could’ve co-existed rather than CG sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

That merging of old and new animation techniques is just one of the many ways Tarzan has carved out an interesting place in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Without another big Tarzan movie adaptation taking the world by storm in the last 25 years (with apologies to 2016's dismal The Legend of Tarzan), it's also emerged as the definitive modern adaptation of Tarzan. These facets reflect the truth that there’s more going on with this movie than just it being the final encore performance for Disney’s animation renaissance.

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