I noted in my last installment the strange confluence of events that resulted in my having been the perfect age to have been there for what was arguably the commercial and artistic peak of Disney’s prowess, at least outside of the original Golden Age. Between 1989 and 1994 Disney had completely transformed itself into an absolute behemoth which put out four straight blockbusters (and some Rescuers thing that they wanted everyone to forget) and seemed like there were set up to be a permanent fixture in Hollywood that would continue to dominate animation forevermore. Then the rest of the 90s happened and everything went to shit. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, these movies are all still considered part of “The Disney Renaissance” and the true low-point is yet to come, but by all accounts Disney quickly squandered a lot of the goodwill they built up in the early 90s with the next five films leaving the door open for competitors like Pixar and Dreamworks to step in and eat their lunch in the 2000s. Of course I speak entirely from reputation, for all I know these movies are actually hidden gems. Unlike the movies in the last installment, I didn’t see any of these movies as a kid. I aged out of that demo during these years, perhaps quicker than some of my peers as my long time aversion to family movies was building during these years. So, no better way to find out the truth of this narrative than to jump in.
When Beauty and the Beast became an Oscar-nominated critical hit it definitely gave Disney a boost of confidence but the two films they had in production, Aladdin and The Lion King, were for whatever reason deemed to be more commercially oriented and wouldn’t have much of a shot of repeating that film’s award success. As such they decided that their next film would be the one where they went for broke aiming towards prestige, and that project was an adaptation of the famous Pocahontas legend. Of course this would be something very different from what Disney has done before as it would be the first Disney movie (outside of certain elements of Robin Hood) to be based on actual history rather than a fairytale or children’s’ book and not just that it was also a movie about a rather prickly moment in history that would require a lot of sensitivity. As such they did a lot of research to make sure that they knew how the Powhatan Indians dressed and what social customs they had and to make sure it was clear that they were not villains… except that for all the time and effort they put into accurately depicting certain details the people making the movie seemed to be blind to the fact that making a Disneyfied version of the Jamestown story was just an immensely terrible idea to begin with and that the story they were trying to tell was wildly misguided.
If The Lion King was Disney’s attempt at making a cute version of Hamlet, Pocahontas was their attempt to make a kid’s version of Romeo and Juliet. The historical John Smith and Pocahontas have been turned from the story of a by all accounts rather hardened 30 year old British captain who once maybe got saved by a twelve year old girl into a story about two star-crossed teenage lovers who start a whirlwind romance despite the fact that they come from different cultures who are feuding over silly misunderstandings. Of course the problem with this idea is that it requires both the Capulet and Montague stand-ins to be equally irrational in their animosity which very much was not the case means setting up the Powhattans and English as both being equally irrational in their distrust of one another, something that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American history will recognize as a ridiculous dichotomy to be setting up. The film certainly namechecks the notion that the Jamestown settlers were a potentially murderous threat to the Powhattans but rather than suggest that animosity towards the natives was widespread among the British they instead pin all the blame on their goofy villain and then have the gall to suggest that as soon as this villain was defeated that everyone lived happily ever after. Bull. Shit. They might as well have just made “Disney’s The Diary of Anne Frank” and then made Anne older and hotter so that she can have a romance with Goebbels and then suggest that the Holocaust was one big misunderstanding that was quickly cleared up once their love inspired the SS to turn against Hitler and avoid disaster.
Now, before it starts to seem like my aversion to this movie is entirely rooted in liberal bellyaching let me make it clear: this movie also sucks for any number of entirely apolitical reasons. First and foremost the entire movie rests on a pair of astonishingly boring protagonists. Pocahontas herself is an entirely wooden and ill-defined character. We’re told that she’s seen as “different” from the other villagers, presumably because she spends so much time doing dramatic poses on top of mountains, but really she’s just completely devoid of personality and Irene Bedard’s incredibly boring voice over does not help. As for John Smith? He’s… certainly very blond and, uh, daring I guess. He decides to stop calling the natives “savages” after Pocahontas puts him through a musical montage but that’s about it. They clearly spent a lot more time worrying about how these characters were going to look than what they’d actually do and the film suffers because of it. The film’s villain is also really terrible. John Ratcliffe was a real leader in Jamestown and he did have some conflicts with the natives (which would eventually result in his being ambushed and skinned alive) but by all accounts he wasn’t any worse than the rest of the English at Jamestown and even if you don’t know that you can still clearly tell he’s just ridiculous here. I mean, this is a guy who straight up sings the line “they’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil” at one point, which is about as nuanced as this movie’s view of intolerance is. He’s not just evil he’s downright stupid and incompetent in his evil and he’s not even a very fun or well rendered in his over the top villainy. Then there’s the movie’s rather bizarre prologue before the title card depicting John Smith setting sail and saving a guy in a storm, which feels incredibly stiff as an opening and feels oddly tacked on, if they’d completely cut it out the film would hardly change.
The movie also has this weird interest in “respecting” native people not by making them three-dimensional characters but by portraying their religion as being literally true and essentially making them all into magical shamans who talk to trees and conjure vague ill-defined swirling leaf magic at will. There are of course ways to depict Native American connections to the environment without literally making them magical as Terrence Malick would go on to prove with his infinitely better Jamestown/ Powhattan movie The New World. It’s also kind of clear that they were sort of making up these aspects of native culture as they went. Like, do you know what “blue corn moon” means? It means nothing. Songwriter Stephen Schwartz straight up made it up because it sounded right in the song and I have a pretty strong hunch that this also goes for other touches like the talking tree grandmother and the rest of the new age bullshit they’re trying to sell as authentic culture. This culminates in the film’s ultimate “what the fuck” moment in which Pocahontas suddenly learns to speak English in two minutes through her swirling leaf magic. I mean, the language barrier is something the film was going to have to pave over in some way, but why in the world would you even bother to bring attention to it if they were just going to cheat like that. There was a much easier way out of this too: the Chesapeake area had already been explored by whites for upwards of a hundred years before John Smith landed, it’s a stretch but it’s plausible that some of the Natives would have already learned English.
Now, I’ve been very careful not to use the “R” word when discussing the film’s portrayal of history, in part because I think everyone involved had mostly good intentions when making the film. The problem is that none of them were thinking through the implications of what they were trying to do. They didn’t seem to realize that America’s painful history isn’t some fairy tale that they can just smooth out the edges on and give a happy ending. It isn’t just that though; this failure to see the bigger picture is what plagues this entire film. They were so focused on little details like what the characters were going to look like and how the animal sidekicks were going to behave and where the songs would be placed that they didn’t seem to notice that the film didn’t really have much of an arc, that its characters were dull as dishwater, and that they’ve accidentally denied a national tragedy. The result is a mess of a movie and to some extent audiences seemed to pick up on that. The movie did make some really good money, which is mostly a reflection of how hot the Disney brand was at the time, but the movie did make less than half of what The Lion King made and about two thirds of what Aladdin made. It also got rather mixed reviews, which to me was a big overly generous. If the movie had been made today in the climate of the hot take and the think piece it almost certainly would have been raked over the coals, and to me that would have been deserved. I’ve been about as sick as anyone at how demanding and political the online critical climate has been lately, but watching this movie was a good reminder of just how wrong things can go when filmmakers try to deal with material like this without having to think about what they’re doing and take their responsibilities seriously.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the second straight Disney movie that I didn’t see in the theaters “back in the day.” In the case of the first of these, Pocahontas that was largely my parents’ doing. My mother had heard (correctly) that that movie was offensive to Native Americans and wasn’t too jazzed to take me to that one. I’m sure that if I had begged a bit more forcefully to see it she would have relented, but it looked like a movie for girls anyway which was enough for seven year old me to be cool with skipping it. My reasons for not seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a big closer to what would become my usual attitude towards children’s movies. At the time I was very into reading these abridged and essentially re-written editions of “classic literature” and among the ones I’d read was Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which I was pretty fond of. When I heard that Disney had made this classic literature into a cartoon which gave it a happy ending I was downright offended and every time I heard any of my friends talking about it I was happy to give them a lecture about it (I wish I was making that up). This is a level of pretentiousness that… well I can’t say I disagree with it but I don’t think eight year old me had really earned that yet: I was getting angry about a movie I hadn’t seen failing to live up to a book the real version of which I hadn’t read yet.
That said, as much as I want to slap my younger self, he kind of did have a point, this was a really weird source text to turn into family entertainment at least on the surface. Hugo’s 600+ page novel was actually called “Notre-Dame de Paris” in France and only took on the title which emphasized the hunchback in its English translation. The book is actually more of an ensemble piece than most of its adaptations would have you think. It also dealt with all sorts of historical, religious, and intellectual themes that would not be of a whole lot of interest to children and some of it was decidedly not G-rated. The financial motivations behind the movie make a lot more sense when you consider that Disney was branching out to Broadway around this time with “Beauty and the Beast: The Musical” having opened in 1994 and “The Lion King: The Musical” on the way . With that in mind you remember that the two most successful musicals in Broadway history were “Les Misérables” (which was based on a Victor Hugo novel) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (which was about a deformed quasi-horror figure who hides out in a Parisian landmark who pines after a woman who may or may not be into him) and when you consider that you begin to wonder why it took someone as long as it did to try to turn this thing into a musical.
To Disney’s credit, they did maintain more of the book’s themes than I thought they would. In particular they seem to have been awfully faithful to the fact that the villain Frollo is in many ways driven by the fact that his sexual lust for Esmerelda conflicts with his religious celibacy. They soften this a little by making him a judge here rather than an Archdeacon and also try to distract from it by also making him a bigot who despises the Romani people (a sub-plot absent from the novel which sort of injects it with modern concerns) but at its heart it’s still a pretty dark idea for a Disney movie. In fact the whole movie seems to have a pretty healthy suspicion of authority and religion and is even at its heart a story about someone lashing out a rebelling against a father figure, which I have to assume isn’t necessarily something parents are super thrilled to teach their kids about. Frollo is actually in many ways more of a prick here than his is in the book (where he does have his redeeming qualities) and to some extent that does put him at risk of becoming one of these cartoonishly evil Disney villains, but unlike Ratcliffe in Pocahontas the film actually explores him and tried to find motivations and roots to why he is the way he is.
It also doesn’t hurt that Disney was able to make Esmerelda into a total dime. I don’t just mean that she’s hot (which she is) but she’s also tantalizing. She’s feisty, she’s rebellious, she’s virtuous, but also has a way of moving and carrying herself that is about as sexual as a lady is going to be in a Disney movie. This all matters because the movie needs to convince the audience that Quasimodo, Phoebus, and Frollo would all fall head over heels for her despite many reasons not to for all involved, and I think they pull this off pretty believably. Phoebus is also pretty well expanded and changed from his book counterpart, who is an asshole horndog who seduces Esmerelda, gets stabbed by a jealous Frollo, then does nothing when she is accused of the attack and eventually executed. Here is made into more of a heroic character actually deserving of her affections, which would seem to be the more conventional approach but they make it work. He’s made into someone who ostensibly works for the government/church but eventually follows his conscious and rebels making his arc an interesting parallel to Quasimodo’s and it’s also a sign of maturity that the film doesn’t take it’s whole ugly duckling “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” theme and simplistically makes all the pretty people into Gaston-like villains to drive the point home.
Now, you’ll notice that I’ve gotten pretty deep into this without really talking about the film’s title character and ostensibly protagonist Quasimodo, and that’s because his transition to film is a little more clunky. As I said before, Quasimodo was never really supposed to be the central character of this story so much as he’s this colorful figure on its periphery. In the novel Quasimodo is deaf and I believe mute and is treated as being sort of “simple.” He does love Esmerelda and helps her at times, and while she does have some sympathy for him she’s repulsed just the same and there’s kind of a King Kong thing going on with the way he tries to give her one-sided affection. He does eventually kill Frollo at the end, but this is more of a murder than a heroic act of saving the day and in many ways they the arc they present in the movie is invented and not entirely successfully. I don’t know, when you’ve got a power made judge trying to wipe out the Romani population and Esmerelda fighting off said oppression the self-esteem issues of Quasimodo seems a bit off-topic, the movie doesn’t feel like it should be his because it shouldn’t be.
Then of course we have to get to his gargoyle friends who are your standard trademark Disney comedy relief. Don’t get me wrong I don’t like any of these characters but generally they haven’t been as big of deal breakers for me as I’ve been watching these. I could take or leave the servant antics in Beauty and the Beast but they generally didn’t do obnoxious fourth wall breaks and kept themselves in check, Pumbaa and Timon had their annoying moments but also had kind of a neat Abbot and Costello thing going on, and the silly animal antics in Pocahontas mostly just seemed like a waste of time and were hardly the worst thing about that movie. These gargoyles on the other hand did bug me, partly because the writers were clearly taking notes from Aladdin and made them more prone to fourth wall breaks, but really it has less to do with the fact that they were any more annoying than what came before and more because they feel more out of place here than some of the previous comical characters did. When you try to be more adult and weightier than what you did previously it’s all the more jarring when you have legless stone figures voiced by Jason Alexander anachronistically breaking the fourth wall. The film does introduce the tantalizing, and kind of dark, possibility that these talking gargoyles don’t really exist and are just voices in Quasimodo’s head but it doesn’t really commit to this and by the time they’re comically participating in the battle at the end they seem to have given up on it.
There’s a lot about The Hunchback of Notre Dame I appreciate, but for all it does right I still can’t help but think that Disney bit off a bit more than they could chew here. Of course (to belabor the metaphor) they did more to chew it than the people who made Pocahontas and just swallowed and immediately started choking, but there’s still a sense that adapting this book was a mistake. It was too weighty for the people who just wanted an adorable fairy tale movie and it was too silly for anyone who was that interested in seeing a Victor Hugo adaptation and consequently it didn’t really find an audience. Some critics appreciated it, but it wasn’t really championed and audiences sort of shrugged at it. It made about a hundred million dollars at the box office, which is not much of a success by Disney’s standards at that point. Part of that might be that audiences felt burned by Pocahontas, part of it might be that kids were just baffled by all the medival politics, part of it might have been that parents didn’t think it was appropriate (I’m honestly not sure how they managed to snag the G-rating), but one way or another it failed. I do think the movie deserved better than that and that it’s one of the studio’s best efforts of the era, but I also sort of understand. That Disney magic just wasn’t there despite a lot of good effort.
While politics and snobbery conspired to make sure I didn’t see Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame when they first came out, I didn’t really need a reason to skip Hercules, I had quite simply grown out of the demo. By 1997 was had pretty firmly graduated from PG movies to PG-13 movies and was having all kinds of fun seeing the likes of Men in Black and Austin Powers during the summer of 1997 and never even gave a thought to seeing the latest Disney flick. What little I did remember of the film’s marketing campaign (which was massive and extensive) made it look even stupider and more immature than usual. The movie was actually coming at a pretty strange time for Disney. Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were both clear disappointments for the company, they weren’t total disasters and they actually made decent bank overseas, but it was clear that they were losing a lot of momentum and by the time Hercules came along it was clear they needed a hit. It’s almost analogues to where the studio was back in the 40s when they spent too much on Pinocchio and went too highbrow with Fantasia and proceeded to make Dumbo to be a pared down audience pleaser that would earn a profit.
Hercules was directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the team behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin and the movie clearly takes after the latter more than the former. More specifically it takes after the parts of Aladdin with the genie. Out of all the movies Disney made in the 90s this (and I guess The Rescuers Down Under) is the only one that more or less ignores everything about the Disney Renaissance style and kind of just does its own thing. This is pretty much a full on mad-cap comedy and rather than just having a couple of comic relief side characters pretty much everyone in this movie with the possible exception of Hercules himself is a fourth wall breaking jokers. The Greek gods are goofballs, the villain is a comical figure who talks like an agent rather than a menacing force, the hero has a sidekick who is basically an extended parody of a character from the Rocky movies, and the love interest spends the entire movie doing a Rosalind Russell impression. The movie opts for irreverence and mirth at pretty much every turn right down to the decision to have the film be narrated by a gospel group for no particularly clear reason. They also change up the art style and the movie doesn’t really have the look or feel of the other Disney movies from this period.
The resulting film kind of feels like a strange hodgepodge at times. The film seems to view Hercules as a super hero of sorts and borrows liberally from the Superman story (and specifically the 1978 Richard Donner Superman film) to build up Hercules’ origin story, which is very different from the mythological version. Then the film also has this odd idea of making successful heroes into Ancient Greek celebrities akin to Michael Jordan with endorsement deals and whatnot and the film occasionally frames itself as a sports movie with a coach much talk about “going the distance,” which is odd given that Hercules was born with superhuman powers and doesn’t really need to work that hard to become a success. Then the movie throws in a gospel choir for some random reason. All of these ideas have some merit but there’s no coherence to the vision and I’m not sure they even wanted there to be. It’s in some ways a movie defined by chaos and irreverence, something at almost feels more like a descendant of the old Warner Brothers cartoons rather than classic Disney.
Given how much distaste I had for the Genie in Aladdin you’d think every moment of this would grate on me, did it? Well, sort of but not exactly. What made the Genie so annoying is that he felt out of place in that movie, which was otherwise a pretty straightforward adventure movie and that was also the problem with the gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Here the tone is pretty consistently comedic if nothing else and that makes it less of a flaw and more a matter of taste. Do I like the humor here? Not really, but it wasn’t painful to watch exactly. Some of the gags were kind of clever but it wasn’t laugh out loud funny to me or anything ultimately the whole thing just feels completely disposable. It’s certainly not a movie made for me or even for ten year old me but I would have thought all the pandering would have made it work for its target audience, but it actually didn’t. The movie made a hundred million domestic, which isn’t any more than The Hunchback of Notre Dame made and certainly didn’t make it the comeback the studio was hoping for. I think in some ways it may have been ahead of its time and in some ways it almost seems like a dry run for what Jeffrey Katzenberg would do when he moved to Dreamworks and started making snarky movies like Shrek. That worked for Dreamworks because they were positioning themselves as the anti-Disney but from Disney itself people wanted something a little grander, at least in this era.
By 1998 Disney had just tried getting very serious and literate with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and super goofy and farcical with Hercules and neither approach really did much for them. Their next movie, Mulan, was an attempt (perhaps one last attempt) to get back to the Goldilocks zone between the two extremes and get back the mojo of their success earlier in the decade. The movie had that sort of epic sweep that had characterized those earlier films and like a lot of the Disney movies of the 90s it was interested in transplanting the tropes of a Disney movie into a different culture’s mythology. Having already done movies in France (twice), the Middle East, Africa (sort of), North America, and Greece it only seemed natural that Disney would go to Asia next and specifically they set their sights on China. In 1998 China was not the vital market that it is today but I’m pretty sure the Disney executives wanted to build bridges there just the same and they had had some success selling The Lion King there. To do that they came upon the legend of a female warrior named Hua Mulan, a sort of Joan of Arc figure who passed herself off as a man in order fight in a war in her aging father’s place. It’s a story that would both move the Disney aesthetic into Asia while also subverting the traditional Diseny princess figure in the most radical way yet by making a female protagonist into a full on fighter.
Mulan is in many ways an attempt to do a Disney take on two genres that would be fairly familiar to adult audiences: the gender bending comedy and the “ragtag platoon bonds before going to war” movie. So it’s like Tootsie meets Stripes but on an epic scale and for kids. Kind of an odd direction to go but I’d say they actually pull it off fairly well. Comedies about men and women pretending to be one another for contrived reasons obviously go back to Shakespeare’s time probably has precedent a lot earlier than that too. It is interesting however that in cinema we tend to get a whole lot of men pretending to be women and not a whole lot of women pretending to be men. I’m sure that college dissertations have been written about why this is but it’s probably just a simple matter of men in dresses being a much stranger sight to most audiences than women in pants. The gags here about Mulan trying to fit in with “the guys” aren’t terribly novel but they are mostly cute. The basic concept is kind of ludicrous of course and Mulan does not make a terribly convincing man during these scenes (in part I think because Disney still wants to make sure she’s “hot” despite the disguise) but the fact that this is animation helps. The film also does a pretty decent job of establishing the comradery between the soldier during the training sequences and by the time they’re actually marching on the enemy you do believe their cohesion.
Of course what’s notable about these scenes is that the humor in them seems awfully grounded and human jokes rather than the goofy pop culture referencing slapstick that took over Hercules and infested other Disney movies like Aladdin. To provide the stupider comedy that kids apparently demand Mulan was of course given a talking sidekick in the form of Eddie Murphy’s Mushu the dragon, a character I certainly expected to hate but who frankly could have been a lot worse. He’s a little out of place and the movie would have been better off without him, but he doesn’t totally break the fourth wall as much as the Genie from Aladdin or the Gargoyles in Hunchback and he actually does serve something of a purpose to the plot as Mulan’s masculinity advisor of sorts. On the musical front this movie presented some changes from the norm as Alan Menken finally stepped away to do other things and their go-to lyricist in this period Stephen Schwartz had defected to the newly formed Dreamworks to make songs for The Prince of Egypt. As such they brought Jerry Goldsmith in to do the score and the songs were done by a dude named Matthew Wilder (best known for the pop hit “Break My Stride”) and David Zippel. The new blood seems to have worked for the movie because musically it’s almost certainly Disney’s best work since The Lion King and that “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song is really something special.
So the movie has a lot of good things going for it, so why isn’t it better remembered? Third act problems. Much of the movie’s running time has everyone getting ready to go to war but once they finally go on their adventure it seemingly ends something like fifteen minutes later in a fairly cheap fashion. At this point Mulan’s secret is revealed, everyone over-reacts, then they get over it something like five minutes later when the (rather boring) villain comes back shortly and launches an urban attack that is not terribly epic compared to what came before. Then there’s this strange coda where Mulan comes home, then Li comes chasing after her but at that point the movie just kind of ends. That isn’t handled very elegantly and there are a few other shaky moments here or there, but overall there’s not really too much to complain about here really, it’s a serviceable little movie though not an extraordinary one. The improvements here did not however turn the movie into the comeback film Disney had likely hoped for. It made $120 million domestic, which was $20 million more than Hercules but still not really anything to write home about. It also didn’t end up making the killing in China that they had likely hoped, in part because Disney was on the Chinese Communist Party’s shit list because Touchstone pictures had put out the movie Kundun the year before and the Chinese government was not thrilled about it. You could tell at this point that Disney was not “planning for success” at this point and they reported gave the film half the marketing budget that Hercules had.
If I asked the average person what the two highest grossing Disney Renaissance movies were they’d probably say The Lion King and Aladdin and they’d be right. What may be more surprising is that the third highest grossing Disney Renaissance movie wasn’t Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, it was their 1999 film Tarzan. Ticket inflation likely had a little bit to do with this but it is still noting that the movie made $170 million while all their other late 90s films had only managed to make between $100 million and $140 million. Granted that still isn’t anywhere near the heights of The Lion King but it does certainly feel like a bit of a comeback after a lot of decline. I was certainly shocked when I discovered this firstly because the movie does not seem to be terribly well remembered and also because even back in 1999 the movie didn’t actually seem to make all that much noise. It just kind of seemed like the annual Disney movie that would come and go and I don’t really remember the advertising campaign nearly as well as I do the campaigns of some of the other Disney movies of the era. Of course it’s also worth questioning if this movie should even be called part of the Disney Renaissance. “Disney Renaissance,” much like the real Renaissance, is kind of a vague term that was invented after the fact. It has a pretty clear beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989 but it’s less clear when it ended. Mulan certainly seems to fit but this next film seems to be actively moving away from some of the conventions we associate with that era of Disney.
For one thing this is not a movie based on a fairy tale or legend or myth or even a famous work of literature; it’s an adaptation of a copyrighted 20th century pulp character and one with something of a long history of cinematic adaptation. The film also has a new animation style born of a technological innovation called Deep Canvas, which allows the filmmakers to use CGI to make backgrounds that look painted rather than digital. It’s kind of hard to explain exactly what it is about this look that seems distinct from the earlier films but the aesthetic change is noticeable. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this stylistic change a definitive change for the better as it does kind of rob the movie of that signature Disney style and in some ways makes it look more like a generic animated production, but it does look pretty cool. Disney had been increasingly incorporating CGI into their films with varying degrees of success since The Great Mouse Detective. Sometimes it looks good like certain shots in The Lion King, sometimes it looks god awful like the hydra fight in Hercules. Of course the irony is that this was a half-measure of sorts and that the wave of the future was going to be fully CGI animated films of the variety that Pixar was pioneering at this time, but Disney was heavily associated with 2D animation and were clearly trying to find a compromise style to run with. The jungle that Tarzan resides in certainly looks pretty good and the action scenes here have a lot more speed and heft than a lot of what we’ve seen before from the studio.
Another thing that differentiates this from the Disney movies of old is that it isn’t a musical. In an interview director Kevin Lima explained that he “just couldn’t see this half-naked man sitting on a branch breaking out in song… it would be ridiculous.” I agree, this adventure story did not need conventional musical numbers, however the alternative they came up with was probably worse. Instead of having characters burst into song they hired Phil Collins to record vaguely on theme songs that would play non-diegeticly at various points in the film. I’m not a fan of Phil Collins but that’s not really the point, I’m sure these songs would sound fine within the context of one of his albums but they seem pretty out of place here. Nothing about the music of Phil Collins screams “jungles of Africa” to me and I’m not sure what made them think it was a good idea to hire him outside of the fact that they’d had some luck working with Billy Joel and Elton John in the past and Phil Collins was next on their list of adult contemporary stars who are sort of past their prime but are still kind of famous and will appeal to the parent demographic. Then again he managed to steal and Oscar from Aimee Mann for his trouble, so what do I know?
Ultimately I think the bigger problem here is just that this Tarzan character is a bit too bland to carry a movie like this. Tony Goldwyn doesn’t really bring this character to life and his confusion with the other humans just isn’t as touching as the writers seem to think it is. Jane is a little better and walks a pretty good line between being a realistically Victorian woman without seeming like a regressive doormat, but the villain is really lame. Clayton is basically just a combination of Percival McLeach from The Rescuers Down Under and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and the fact that Jane and her father seemed to trust him as long as they did makes them both look like morons. Overall I think this proves to be a very thoroughly average movie more than anything. Disney was clearly trying to use this movie to make a slightly cooler and more boy friendly kind of Disney movie, a direction that would probably turn out to be disastrous in the long run but I can see why the producers would have seen the movie to be fairly promising even if it clearly wasn’t a homerun out the gate.
Collecting Some Thoughts
Throughout this installment I’ve referred to a lot of these movies as being “disappointments” but let’s be clear: Disney didn’t lose money on any of them. Yes, a lot of them underwhelmed at the domestic box office but a lot of them actually did quite well overseas and even beyond that I’m sure Disney made plenty of money where it mattered: merchandising. All of these movies had toy lines, likely sold a million VHSs and DVDs, and they all had marketing tie-ins with companies like McDonalds. In fact the lowest grossing of all these movies, Hercules, is reported to have had marketing tie-ins with no fewer than 85 different licenses. Still, Disney is a mega-corporation and after the massive success they had earlier in the decade you have to assume that someone in a suit somewhere must have been furious about how things had gone. So what went wrong? Well the movies got worse obviously, but they weren’t terrible and there are certainly worse kids’ movies out there, why weren’t they able to spin the likes of Mulan into gold? Part of it must have just been fatigue. When Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King came out they seemed like events but these later movies didn’t; releasing a movie every single year for a decade tends to have that effect. Still, I’m pretty sure that if things had been reversed and Pocahontas and Tarzan had come out first and the earlier renaissance classics had come out later it wouldn’t have necessarily meant that the former would have been received better. I feel like the bigger problem was just hubris. By the time they made The Lion King they simply felt that they could do this in their sleep and that the public would be endlessly willing to follow them wherever they went and the proved not to be the case. Meanwhile competition was coming into place. Pixar emerged during this era and instantly began out-grossing their older sibling with pretty much every movie right up until Frozen and it wouldn’t be long before they also had to contend with Dreamworks and as we will soon see this combination of creative stagnation and increased competition will come to bring Disney to its true low point.