Many years ago off the coast of Africa a family of three were shipwrecked, managing to row to safety. But their location was miles from anywhere they might have been offered help, so the father had to make do with what they had, and was so resourceful that they did very well with their newly built treehouse. Yet it was not to last, as while the baby son was spared, the parents were killed by a vicious leopard, and the boy would have perished as well had he not been found by an inquisitive gorilla named Kala (voiced by Glenn Close) who having lost her own child was keen to adopt the infant as her own. She called him Tarzan...
After the runaway success of The Lion King, it appeared Disney were anxious to get another, similar film off the ground to tap into the same audience, and so it was that they adapted one of the most popular characters in movie history, drawn from the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Except they didn't stick hugely close to the source, preferring to pick and choose from a selection of other versions which had been produced down the almost century-long space of time the character had been brought to the screen, so what you had here was something of a mishmash - a bit of Johnny Weissmuller here, part of Greystoke there.
In fact, the main innovation was in Tarzan's physicality, as he fairly raced through the trees, even adopting a surfer pose as he slid along twisting branches, of which there were an abundance, so it was not simply the vine swinging which concerned us here. Being an origin tale, as many of the superhero movies gathering popularity around the time were, we were privy to Tarzan's early years as the gorillas welcomed him as their own - well, almost all did, as the partner of Kala, the silverback Kerchak (Lance Henriksen), was more reluctant, thereby crowbarring in a theme on acceptance between fathers and sons (family was very important in Disney animated features), along with a vaguer one about prejudice.
Maybe not vaguer, but certainly a bigger picture than the more intimate sections of the drama. Needless to say this was animated immaculately, which paid dividends when it was one of the studio's larger success of the decade which had seen their renaissance in cartoons, fittingly ending the nineties on a high for them. But while its heart was in the right place, this remained a watered down incarnation of the famed Apeman, more keen on supplying the romantic or tearkerking moments and not helped by a sense of humour which was broad and obvious, constantly going for the cutesy, wholesome gags when a harder edge might have served the character better, or at least a funnier line in jokes.
Not that it had to be Tarzan Extreme or anything, but you got the impression this was pulling in different directions and had trouble settling on the correct tone: the fact that so many were credited with assisting the script indicated Disney's committee approach didn't always serve such characters as Tarzan as well as they might have hoped. Take Jane, for example (voiced brightly by Minnie Driver): she and the now grown up Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn) in other variations might have capitalised on the erotic charge that a meeting between a savage and a society lady would have had when they found themsleves so attracted to one another (the Bo Derek version showed how not to handle this), but you couldn't have that in a Disney movie so the connection was anodyne and we had to take it for granted the attraction was there. Really this was on the level of the Weissmuller series once it had reached the later run of the mill adventures, so it may look very pretty, but any animalistic charge of the natural world was reduced to a theme park thrill. Music by Phil Collins in Elton John mode.