One of the most frequently filmed characters in movie history, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes has been played by Johnny Weissmuller, Elmo Lincoln, Ron Ely, Christopher Lambert, Casper Van Dien and many, many others. But curiously, with over 75 films to his credit, the famed ape-man had never been given a full-length animated feature. Walt Disney Pictures changed all that in 1999 with the release of Tarzan, which used a new animation technique called “Deep Canvas” to bring the hero’s vine-swinging adventures to thrilling, dizzying life.
In prologue, an English family escapes from a burning shipwreck and builds a treehouse on a deserted island. Tragically, a hungry leopard finds them there, and a tiny baby is the only survivor. Meanwhile, gorilla Kala has just lost her baby to the same leopard, and when she discovers the human child in the wrecked treehouse, she decides to adopt it as her own.
The boy, dubbed “Tarzan,” knows he isn’t like the rest of the gorilla family, and adopted father Kerchak constantly reminds him he never will be. Still, it isn’t a bad life among the talking jungle beasts, and Tarzan strikes up friendships with a sassy gorilla named Terk and a worrywart elephant named Tantor.
But one day, the now-grown Tarzan has his entire world turned upside-down by a peculiar arrival: man. Actually, “woman” is more interesting to Tarzan, who finds himself strangely drawn to the lovely Jane Porter. The British lass is in the jungle to study gorillas with her father, Professor Archimedes Q. Porter, but their burly guide Clayton is more interested in bagging a few gorilla trophies.
Jane trains the knuckle-dragging, tree-surfing hunk in the ways of civilization, while Clayton schemes to use the trusting lug to get close to the apes. Kerchak sees this as betrayal, and the poor ape-man’s heart is torn in two, forced to choose between the only family he’s ever known and the first girl he’s ever loved.
Tarzan was a bit of a surprise coming from Disney. There were no musical numbers (though Phil Collins provided several background tunes, including the Oscar-winning "You'll Be in My Heart"), and the fight scenes were more intense than young Disneyphiles may have been accustomed to. The film did, however, have its lighter moments (many from Wayne Knight as Tantor and Rosie O’Donnell as Terk), and Tarzan’s zippy jaunts through the thick jungle canvas gave many viewers the biggest rush of their young moviegoing lives. It had been ten years since The Little Mermaid began the rebirth of Disney animation, and the global success of Tarzan proved that the Renaissance wasn’t over yet.