My wife’s birthday was this weekend and one of her favorite Disney films is Tarzan. When I presented her with a DVD of the film, it donned on me that I had never seen it. “Can we watch it tonight?” She asked. “Of course. I was counting on it.” I answered. Then her face lowered and she spoke in a less excited, more..adult tone. “It’s not the best Disney movie ever.” “Okay.” I said. “I mean, it’s not even really in my top five.” She continued. “There’s just something about it that I really like.” Immediately I understood what she was talking about.
I have a soft spot for Disney films that “aren’t even in the top five.” Atlantis: the Lost Empire remains one my favorites and is considered one of the films that sounded the end of 2-D animation* The Sword in the Stone remains a faithful, if truncated adaptation of T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King”, but is often cast aside for its non-linear, tangental style.** And so it goes with films like The Rescuers and The Great Mouse Detective. Fine films all, but they never found the success of a Beauty and the Beast or an Aladdin.
It’s rare, success or not, to point to a Disney film and think, it’s good to see them try something different. The story is almost famous now, that founder Walt Disney wanted to make an art piece out of his musical/animated extravaganza Fantasia. But when the film failed to bring in the crowds, Disney supposedly learned the lesson, according to writer H.L. Mencken, “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” Fantasia, by any yardstick, is a masterpiece in cinema, but it is hardly a crowd pleaser when lain against films like Sleeping Beauty or The Jungle Book.
However, try as they might to dole out hit after hit, sometimes pleasing failures leak through Disney’s Animation Department, and they are better for it. Looking back on some of their classics, there’s no way that the existential nightmare of Pinocchio would ever be made today. No, today we get sanitized works and animation has become less “family” entertainment” and more “kids” entertainment. The pressure to deliver a multi-million dollar weekend in Hollywood is the death knell of creativity.
This isn’t to say that Tarzan is a good film. It’s extremely flawed. There’s a musical number that is shoehorned in, and it never quite feels like the same movie from scene to scene. However, there are some wonderful emotional scenes, some brilliant character design and animation, and Phil Collins' music is quite good.*** Mostly though, I have to give it to the film's team for risking a story taken from a pulp-adventure novel. They’ve tried this before and since with the live-action failures of The Rocketeer****, John Carter***** and The Lone Ranger.
Before some of you cry foul on this mini-rant, and extol the virtues of Frozen for being a different kind of Disney film couched in the tropes of those we’ve come to expect, I have to take your word for it. I’ve not seen Frozen although I hear it’s quite good and it’s wonderful to hear that different things are being done with the stories they tell. I’ve just been waiting for the hype to die down. I may be waiting forever.
* And one of the best adventure movies ever made.
**Much like the book.
***I dig Phil Collins.
****This concept deserves a live-action TV series or a Bruce Timm produced animated series.
*****As imperfect as this movie was, I really liked it. Worse films than this one have received follow ups. Transformers I’m looking at you.