Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Tarzan.

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Tarzan

Year: 1999

Source materials : Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1

Budget: $130 million 2

Box office: $448.2 million

Plot: An English couple and their infant son escape a shipwreck, ending up stranded on the coast of Africa. The couple craft themselves a treehouse from their ship’s wreckage, but are subsequently killed by Sabor, a leopardess.


Kala, a gorilla, hears the cries of the orphaned infant, and finds him in the treehouse. Kala encounters Sabor, and escapes with the infant in her possession. Kala takes the infant back to her troop to raise as her own, as she has lost her own child to Sabir. The leader of the troop and her mate, Kerchak, grudgingly disapproves. Kala raises the human child, naming him Tarzan.


Five years later, Tarzan begins to befriend other animals, including a young female gorilla named Terk and the elephant, Tantor. Tarzan finds himself treated differently, because of his different physique. As an eighteen year old young man, Tarzan manages to kill Sabor with a spear he crafted, gaining Kerchak’s reluctant respect.


A team of human explorers arrive from England, consisting of Professor Porter, his daughter Jane, and their hunter-guide Clayton. Jane becomes separated from the group and chased by a baboon troop, with Tarzan saving her.


Despite Kerchak’s warnings to be wary of the humans, Tarzan continues to return to the camp, where Porter, Clayton, and Jane teach him how to speak English as well as what the human world is like.


He and Jane begin to fall in love. However, the English explorers have a difficult time convincing Tarzan to lead them to the gorillas, due to Tarzan’s fear of Kerchak. Clayton wants to capture the gorillas and bring them back to Europe.


The explorers’ ship soon returns. Clayton convinces Tarzan that Jane will stay with him forever as long as he leads them to the gorillas. Tarzan agrees, but Kerchak returns, and when he sees the humans, attacks them. Tarzan holds Kerchak at bay while the humans escape. Kerchak accuses Tarzan of betraying the troop.


Kala takes Tarzan to the treehouse, where she first found him, and shows him his true past. Tarzan puts on a suit that once belonged to his father, signifying his decision to go to England.


When Tarzan boards the ship the next day, they are all ambushed by Clayton and he locks them away to prevent them from interfering. Tarzan manages to escape and returns to the jungle.


Clayton fatally shoots Kerchak and battles Tarzan across the treetops, although Tarzan spares his life. After Tarzan traps Clayton with vines, Clayton attempts to free himself, but falls from the tree with a vine tangled around his neck, dying from hanging.


Kerchak, with his dying breath, finally accepts Tarzan as his son. The next day, Porter and Jane decide to stay in Africa with Tarzan and the gorillas.

Background: After working on A Goofy Movie, Kevin Lima was approached to direct Tarzan by studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. After Katzenberg’s resignation, Lima was again contacted about the project by Michael Eisner. Lima read Tarzan of the Apes where he began to visualize the theme of two hands being held up against each other.


I was looking for something that would underscore Tarzan’s sense of being alike, yet different from his ape family. The image of touching hands was first conceived as an idea for how Tarzan realizes he and Jane are physically the same.

Lima approached his friend, Chris Buck, who had just wrapped up work as a supervising animator on Pocahontas, to ask if he would be interested in serving as co-director. Instead of having Tarzan leave for England, they felt that it was incompatible with their central theme of what defines a family. A villain named Clayton was created and Kerchak was re-characterized from a savage silverback into the protector of the gorilla tribe. Another issue was the inherent and overt racism in the original Edgar Rice Rurrough’s Tarzan. The writers consciously chose to not include any African characters in order to avoid this topic. Terk was originally written as a male gorilla, but following Rosie O’Donnell’s audition, Terk was re-characterized as a female.

Changes from the Source Material:


  • Tarzan’s name is John Clayton III and his parents are the Earl and Countess of Greystoke.
  • At one year old his mother dies.
  • His father is killed by Kerchak.
  • “Tarzan” means “White Skin” in the ape language.
  • Tarzan discovers his parent’s cabin on his own. Using basic primers with pictures, over many years he teaches himself to read English.
  • Kerchak becomes jealous and attacks him.
  • Tarzan kills Kerchak and takes his place as “king” of the apes.
  • One of the hunters of an African tribe kills Kaka
  • William Cecil Clayton is Tarzan’s cousin.
  • A French naval officer named Paul D’Arnot teaches Tarzan to speak French and takes Tarzan to the land of white men.
  • Jane marries Clayton in Wisconsin and Tarzan doesn’t reveal his identity.

Animation: The animators were split into two teams, one in Paris and one in Burbank. Glen Keane was the supervising animator for Tarzan at the Paris studio, while Ken Duncan was the supervising animator for Jane at the studio in Burbank.

They used a system called a “scene machine” that could send drawings between the studios. Also two hundred animators at the Feature Animation Florida satellite studio provided character animation and special effects animation. Filmmakers had to discuss their work through daily video conferences among the three studios.

Keane was inspired by his son’s interest in extreme sports, and was inspired by skateboarder Tony Hawk. Although Keane initially thought that Tarzan would be easy to animate because he only wears a loincloth, he realized that he would need a fully working human musculature while still being able to move like an animal. 3 The animation team attended lectures on primates, made trips to zoos, and studied nature documentaries. The team went on a two-week safari in Kenya to take reference photographs and observe the animals.

The production team developed a 3D painting and rendering technique known as Deep Canvas, 4 allowing artists to produce CGI background that looks like a painting. It was later used for Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet.

Songs: Directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck decided not to follow Disney’s musical tradition by having the characters sing.

I did not want Tarzan to sing. I just couldn’t see this half-naked man sitting on a branch breaking out in song. I thought it would be ridiculous.


Phil Collins, of the band Genesis as well as a successful solo artist, wrote and performed the songs serving as a narrator.

  • Two Worlds
  • You’ll Be in My Heart 5
  • Trashin’ the Camp
  • Strangers Like Me

Voice Cast:

Tony Goldwyn as Tarzan. He portrayed Carl Bruner in Ghost, Colonel Bagley in The Last Samurai, and since 2012, he starred in the ABC drama Scandal, as Fitzgerald Grant III, President of the United States.6 Minnie Driver as Jane Porter. Her film work includes Sleepers, Big Night, Grosse Pointe Blank, Good Will Hunting, 7 Return to Me, Ella Enchanted, The Phantom of the Opera, Conviction, Barney’s Version, and Beyond the Lights. She currently stars as Maya DiMeo on the ABC sitcom Speechless.

Glenn Close as Kala. Close made her Broadway debut in Barnum in 1980 and appeared in The Real Thing in 1983. 8 Her film roles include The World According to Garp, The Big Chill, The Natural 9 Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons, and Albert Nobbs. 10 She won two more Tony Awards in the 1990s, for Death and the Maiden in 1992 and Sunset Boulevard in 1995. Television roles include Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, 11 Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 2003 TV film The Lion in Winter, 12 The Shield, and from 2007 to 2012, she starred as Patty Hewes in the FX drama series Damages. 13 Her other films include Jagged Edge, Hamlet, Reversal of Fortune, 101 Dalmatians, Paradise Road, Air Force One, Cookie’s Fortune, Heights, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Girl With All The Gifts. Lance Henriksen as Kerchak. He is best known for his roles as Bishop in the Alien film franchise, and Frank Black in Fox television series Millennium. Henriksen also voices Fleet Admiral Steven Hackett in BioWare’s Mass Effect video game trilogy. He has appeared in The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Right Stuff, and The Terminator.

Brian Blessed as Cecil Clayton. 14 In 1967, he played Porthos in a 10-part BBC adaptation of The Three Musketeers. On television, he appeared in The Avengers, Doctor Who and I, Claudius. On stage, he starred in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Cats, as both Old Deuteronomy and Bustopher Jones, for the original 1981 West End theatre production. Blessed has appeared in a number of Shakespearean roles on both stage and screen, including four of the five Shakespeare films directed by Kenneth Branagh: as the Duke of Exeter in Henry V, Antonio in Much Ado About Nothing, the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father in Hamlet, and both Duke Frederick and Duke Senior in As You Like It. Other film roles include Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and of course, Flash Gordon. Nigel Hawthorne 15 returns as Professor Archimedes Q. Porter.

Rosie O’Donnell as Terk. 16 O’Donnell started her comedy career while still a teenager. Her big break was on the talent show Star Search in 1984. She appeared in the films A League of Their Own andSleepless in Seattle. She hosted The Rosie O’Donnell Show from 1996 to 2002, and was a co-host on The View. Wayne Knight 17 as Tantor. 18

Critical Reception: Entertainment Weekly compared the film’s advancement in visual effects to that of The Matrix, stating that it had “the neatest computer-generated background work since Keanu Reeves did the backstroke in slow motion.” They elaborate by describing how the characters moved seamlessly through the backgrounds themselves, giving the film a unique three-dimensional feel that far surpassed the quality of previous live-action attempts. Roger Ebert gave the film 4 stars, and he had similar comments about the film, describing it as representing “another attempt by Disney to push the envelope of animation”, with scenes that “move through space with a freedom undreamed of in older animated films, and unattainable by any live-action process.”

Legacy: Disneyland changed the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse into a Tarzan themed Treehouse.


A spin-off animated series named The Legend of Tarzan ran from 2001 to 2003. In 2002, Tarzan & Jane was released as a direct-to-video sequel, with Michael T. Weiss replacing Goldwyn as the voice of Tarzan. Tarzan II, a direct-to-video followup was released in 2005.

A Broadway musical produced by Disney Theatrical, also titled Tarzan, began previews on March 24, 2006. It had an official opening night on May 10 of the same year.


Five Tarzan video games have been released on various platforms. Tarzan’s home is also featured as a playable world in the 2002 game Kingdom Hearts.


My take: I was surprised to see how many changes there were from the book, and I have to say, I think they made the right choices.  I remember seeing the “vine surfing” for the first time and being amazed.

Next Week: We return to Andy’s bedroom.