1999 was a rather special year for English-language cinema, an annus mirabilis in which every new weekend seemed to bring a new film that threatened to redefine the language of the art form or simply to perfect the language that already existed. Of course it wasn't really that packed with revolution film masterpieces, but even a rudimentary list of some of the best films of the year - and I'm not even leaving America, the UK, and Australia here - demonstrates how outstandingly complex our movie theaters were back then: Eyes Wide Shut, Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, Titus, Holy Smoke, Fight Club, The Blair Witch Project, The Insider, Boys Don't Cry, Magnolia... and I'm not even trying to write an exhaustive list. Some of these films were better than others, but by God every one of them was doing something new and exciting and original.
I'm not just putting all that out there for the sake of it, but because in a marvelous coincidence of history, the big Disney animated feature to come out in the summer of '99 also happened to be pretty revolutionary, just as much as any of those films. "Revolutionary" and "Disney" are not words typically combined, I know, but the studio's adaptation of Tarzan must surely qualify: for it introduced a new technology that was the most important and amazing new development in 2-D animation since the introduction of CAPS with The Rescuers Down Under, nine years earlier (right, the "introduction" happened with one scene in The Little Mermaid, but that was more like a demo reel). The name of this technology was Deep Canvas.
Conceived by layout artist Dan St. Pierre and nurtured by President of Feature Animation, Peter Schneider, Deep Canvas is most simply described as a tool that allows for a three-dimensional computer model to be "painted" as though it was a flat surface. It's not accurate but maybe a little bit clearer to call it a program for turning two-dimensional paintings into three-dimensional space; either way, the effect is the same. You have a three-dimensional space, covered in brushstrokes.
I'll assume that the importance of this advance is obvious, but permit me to spell it out anyway: Deep Canvas allowed for the creation of fully immersive environments that looked like paintings and not like video game levels. Gone was the tyranny of the planar background; gone also was the jarring CGI sheen found in the ballroom sequence of Beauty and the Beast, the "sanctuary!" scene in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or even the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King and the snowy assault of the Huns in Mulan. In their place, Tarzan presents what looks for all the world like an oil painting that you can run through, allowing for an airborne camera that swoops around in defiance of real-world limitations on even the most kinetic cinematography, around and between trees up in the air this moment and plunging to the ground in the next moment.
The application that this technology has for a story mostly famous for its title character's propensity towards swinging through the jungle on vines is quite clear: it permits the filmmakers to marry the viewers perspective to Tarzan's, allowing us to fly through the tree tops right alongside him, and perform the same acrobatic feats. And yet, despite how important Deep Canvas was to Tarzan, and indeed how impossible it is to imagine the film succeeding a quarter so well without that remarkable technology driving it, the initial conception of the movie had nothing to do with this stunning new toy: the project was born ultimately from the idea that no live-action film could ever properly depict the physical condition of a man who was raised from infancy to live as an ape, and that therefore none of the multitude of earlier filmed versions of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes had depicted the character as he ought to be. Perversely, an animated Tarzan was seen as necessary because it could be the most "realistic" version of the story ever put to film. It was only after St. Pierre was able to get himself assigned to the project as production designer on the strength of his Deep Canvas pitch to Schneider that this element entered the movie; and since the Disney animators and background artists knew an amazingly great thing when they saw it, they were quick to embrace the possibilities of Deep Canvas, which went from a theoretical possibility to a living, breathing program over the course of Tarzan's production.
Naturally, Deep Canvas was a costly thing, all the more so because even after it had been developed, there was still the matter of the intense amount of labor that went into putting its possibilities into use. Obviously, animators and background artists needed to be in communication with each other all the way back to the earliest days of cel animation, in which those two disciplines became separate; but the Deep Canvas process required an almost unfathomable level of choreography between the animators, animation directors, background painters, effects animators, and computer technicians; given the speed with which the camera could change perspective, it was possible to see every angle of a character within the span of a few seconds, and all that was still being done by hand. It is to the greatest credit of the hundreds of people involved (if I am not mistaken, Tarzan has the largest crew list of any feature in the Disney animated canon) that the effect is carried off so seamlessly in the finished film: to look at it, you would never expect that the technology was being invented right as the film was in animation production.
At any rate, the final price tag was around $150 million, officially, so we can safely assume that it actually cost a good bit more than that. Luckily for Disney, Tarzan was the biggest 2-D animated hit since The Lion King, taking in $171 million at the U.S. box office and a total of $448 million internationally (it was less than $400,000 behind The Matrix on the 1999 domestic box office charts). It was also, as of 2008, the last 2-D Disney animated feature to surpass $150 million, and one of the last two to break $100 million, but that is a tale for another time. The point being that even though it was considered a major success, coming off the relatively small receipts for Hunchback, Hercules, and Mulan, it was only just as successful as it had to be to earn back its budget.
That the filmmakers were proud of Deep Canvas, and wanted to make sure we know it, is clear from the very start: for the first time in any Disney animated feature, the familiar (but now sadly defunct) "White Castle" Disney logo (I assume it has a real name) appears over the film proper, rather than over a blue field - a jungle scene that has depth and painterly goodness, and which the camera zooms through like it has someplace to be in a hurry. "Welcome to Deep Canvas", this opening shot says; "it is awesome and going to kick your ass".
Ay, me. Setting Deep Canvas aside, reluctantly - for if ever I have wanted a computer animation technology to take human form, so that I could tenderly make love to it for always, it would be Deep Canvas - Tarzan was initially put into active development right around the time that Pocahontas had underperformed compared to Disney's expectations, and this resulted in the first change to the thus-far successful Broadway musical formula that had been a hit for the studio so many times starting with The Little Mermaid. Gone was a song-driven narrative (even something as relatively tuneless as Mulan still at heart was a musical), gone indeed were diegetic songs, for the most part; Tarzan was a return to a style that the studio had briefly kicked around with The Rescuers all the way back in 1977, in which all but one of the musical numbers were pop songs performed by an offscreen agent - in this case, Phil Collins. It was also much more of a traditionally-structured adventure narrative, with three nice clear phases that don't quite lock properly into the customary three-act Hollywood framework, although I think for convenience we can call it a three-act narrative. I suppose it's a good thing that Disney saw fit to experiment: one of the commonest and easiest and admittedly fairest criticism of the Disney animated features is their adherence to a formula that sometimes leads to sometimes unfortunate results, like the transformation of an historical Native American figure into a romantic princess, or the addition of sassy gargoyles to a Victor Hugo novel. On the other hand, the part of me that knows deep down that musicals are my all-time favorite movie genre is made sad by the abandonment of that style by Disney, the last company to still make classically-designed musicals many years after the rest of Hollywood had discarded the form as hopelessly outdated (this was two years before Moulin Rouge! and Hedwig and the Angry Inch came around and breathed new life into the musical, though it's no real comfort to note that at the end of the decade, they're still the only two neo-musicals that are remotely outstanding).
Music and narrative build notwithstanding, Tarzan still fits comfortably into the Disney formula: a distracting celebrity-voiced comic sidekick, a story with all the darkness rubbed out to keep from upsetting the kids, with some much thinner darkness added back in because drama still needs some kind of conflict- no, that isn't fair. It's a damn sight safer than Burroughs's novel (the third and last of the adult literary sources given the Disney treatment), but there are still some moments that are hauntingly grim, particularly in the opening scene: the gorilla mother Kala (Glenn Close) listening as her baby screams, offscreen, while the leopard Sabor tears him to pieces (actually, as I think about it? That's not "thinner darkness," that's "fucking depressing"); and later, when Kala finds the human family (not named in the movie, but they can hardly be the Claytons of the novel), the sight of their lifeless bodies hidden in the debris left in the same cat's wake, with bloody pawprints all over the ground... screw it, I'm adding this to my mental list of Disney features that absolutely didn't deserve their G-rating.
Since I'm already talking about it: by this point, Disney features had made a habit out of opening big (it goes back to Beauty and the Beast, with its moody exposition scene and the phenomenal musical number "Belle"), but Tarzan has one of the very best of all the opening sequences in the Disney Renaissance. Set to the best of Collins's four songs, "Two Worlds", and I think I'm going to have to go ahead and admit something really shameful. I like Phil Collins. I know you're not supposed to. And some of his stuff is unendurable. But I think Invisible Touch is a great album, and his Tarzan compositions are all pretty pleasing, even though I understand on some intellectual level that they suck. Check the post title: those are the first words in the movie. "Put your faith in what you most believe in". Way to use "in" twice in one clause, jackass. And yet I really love the song.
Okay, so beginning with the very overproduced and poppy and nevertheless hooky "Two Worlds", the opening of Tarzan is a marvelous silent short film, introducing us first to the extraordinarily beautiful fantasy jungle where we will spend the next 88 minutes, and then using a number of dramatic images to propel us through the danger and adventure of that world, beginning with a burning ship that outdoes even the iconic scene from The Little Mermaid for rich, violent reds and oranges. We see a father and mother and infant son escape and start building a tree house; we see a gorilla troop with its own set of babies foraging in the jungle. The music is brash and pompous, reflecting the mood at this moment of possibility and exploration; we then move into the more dangerous side of things with the line "danger's no stranger here" - Goddamn, they're such bad lyrics! - as the film indulges in what I always think of as a "film student cool" cut: by which I mean, something that is kind of cheesy and overbaked, and it only really seems like a good idea when you're a 20-year-old film student and just figuring out how to do cinema. In this case, a shot with the sun in the upper right corner dissolves into a very brief shot of Sabor's face, with the sun in his left (screen-right) eye, which then dissolves into a night shot with the moon in the upper left, right where Sabor's right eye was. It's hokey, and it's my favorite moment in the whole movie, because it is very parsimonious and because I remember when I was a 20-year-old film student.
Like most films based on iconic characters from works of literature that most people haven't actually read (cf. Dracula, Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes), Disney's Tarzan is adapted more from the notion of Burroughs's novel than the actual meat of it. There's no indication here that Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) is a lost member of the nobility, and several of the side characters have had their personalities moved around: Tantor the elephant (Wayne Knight) is a goofy comic sidekick, the silverback Kerchak (Lance Henriksen) is more of an embittered, impossible-to-please father figure than a villain, one of the minor apes has been renamed, turned into a girl, and given the personality of Rosie O'Donnell; the hunter Clayton (BRIAN BLESSED!) is much more of an active villain and does not appear to be related any longer to Tarzan. And the Porters, Jane (Minnie Driver) and her father (Nigel Hawthorne) have been made both natural scientists and British, something taken from the famous Johnny Weismuller Tarzan pictures in the 1930s.
None of these details are really all that important: what matters is that the story works a the basic level of: "man raised by apes discovers other people like him, falls in love with the one who is female". And it thus works, surprisingly well. Tarzan isn't much of a character: not even given a "yearning" song (though Phil Collins does sing an interior monologue for us at one point), he doesn't really have any sort of motivations or personality other than being the dude who swings about and looks at Jane with gooey eyes. And yet, Tarzan, the film, still finds a way to turn him into one of the most sympathetic heroes of the Disney Renaissance, thanks mostly to the emotional impact of the visuals. There is a repeated motif of touching hands used throughout the film, communicating a very unambiguous theme that is never spoken except in a very brief passage of song: I'm here for you - take my hand - we'll be okay together. Considering how much Disney as a corporation is all about nuclear families, there are fewer examples in their animated canon than you might thing where the actual point of family is actually communicated: love and safety. In their rush to succeed as comfortably conservative heteronormative tracts, most Disney movies simply posit a sort of "Family Good! Fire Bad!" this-is-how-the-universe-works fiat; when one actually dramatises and defends the joy of family and community, it's a bit of a shock and a pleasure, and despite having a protagonist no better than he needs to be, I'd be tempted to thus call Tarzan the most legitimately touching Disney feature of the 1990s.
It helps, doubtlessly, that most of the other characters besides Tarzan are pretty well-defined: in particular, Jane and her father are absolutely fantastic, lifted not just by being written as appealingly comic (rather than being funny caricatures), but by two immaculate voice performances. Driver in particular gives one of my favorite vocal performances in any modern Disney film, and easily the best performance of her career: brilliantly timed reactions, exactly the right tone of excitement or indignation at any given instant, and quintessentially, delightfully, Victorian British.
The film suffers from having a fairly uninteresting villain, though BRIAN BLESSED! unashamedly plays the role as only he could (BRIAN BLESSED! also provides Tarzan's yell, which he is uniquely qualified to do). Clayton simply isn't active enough, and until the last few minutes, not threatening enough either. But Tarzan ultimately isn't driven by drama but by sentiment and feeling, so it doesn't require a strong villain (much like Beauty and the Beast, though Clayton is no Gaston, either).
Insofar as the film has strong drama, it comes from the visuals: and I don't mean to keep harping on Deep Canvas, but it really does leave the film with a richness of a kind never previously seen in 2-D animation - nor, in 1999, anywhere else, although by now we've seen Pixar outdo Tarzan's vast, twisting jungle at least a couple of times. I realise that I've largely failed to mention anything about the character design or animation, but naturally enough, it is of the finest - Disney in the '90s, very standard level of quality, you know. In particular, I admire Glen Keane's work in drafting Tarzan, and finding ways to depict his abnormal musculature without making it seem disgusting - also, Keane's innovation that Tarzan should slide around on branches as much as swing on vines, based on the animator's observation of skateboarders, does a great deal to exploit the possibilities of Deep Canvas while also giving him and his team plenty of chances to do all sorts of clever and interesting things with basic character motion that recall the burst of enthusiasm that greeted The Little Mermaid: the space to things completely unfettered by the real and the practical, bending the human form around in all sorts of unimaginable ways.
In general, the film looks about what one would expect: the characters are somewhat angular (especially Jane, led by Ken Duncan, who also oversaw the similar-looking Meg in Hercules), the colors are bright and pleasing - particularly, the contrast between the bold colors of the characters and the cornucopia of greens in the jungle background. This is one of the most visually forward of modern Disney films, by which I mean that it has such intense colors and ambitious images that it's hard not to respond on some gut level: it knocks the breath out of you a bit, in a manner rather more exciting than anything.
So anyway, I need to take something back: I said in regard to The Hunchback of Notre Dame that it was the last great Disney feature, because at the time I had it in my head that Tarzan was kind of middling, except for the good backgrounds. Aside from the fact that the backgrounds are in fact "things of orgasm-inducing beauty" and not "good", I have no idea what my problem was when I last saw the movie, maybe six or seven years ago. It's not the strongest thing out there, but it's beautiful in every detail of character and design, its emotional palette is dead simple and because of that, sweetly touching, it has some fantastically thrilling adventure setpieces, the comic relief doesn't suck, and Phil Collins is like the tastiest junk food you ever had. It is, in fact, a great Disney film - not masterpiece quality, but good enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with plenty of its cousins.
Oddly, the three films so far in this retrospective that have improved the most compared to my memories came out right in a row: Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan. They were first released when I was 15, 16, and 17, respectively - maybe it was just my delayed teenage rejection of Disney, I don't know. If I manage to find really nice things to say about Atlantis: The Lost Empire in a couple more entries, you can go ahead and disregard everything I've said about animation so far.