Reflections on Tarzan

Last year, I downloaded and read several of the original Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novels – I think I petered out around the third one and didn’t read past that. Wikipedia tells me that there are twenty-five novels(!) in the series, so if anyone has read further and can recommend any standouts (as opposed to “hey, this is making me money, lemme milk this franchise to death”) I would appreciate it!

The other day, I noticed that Netflix had a bunch of Disney animated films on instant streaming – and aware that such a windfall is likely to vanish into the Vault soon enough, I put a couple of them on as background entertainment while multitasking. Tarzan was one of them.

The differences between the original source material and the Disney version are striking! Now, some of that, I can see as a concession to the target audience: bloody death is not going to get your movie rated G, and there’s a great deal of exposition about Tarzan in the novel that simply wouldn’t translate well to the movie screen, iirc. All those lines extolling Tarzan’s noble English heritage, for example. How exactly do you manage to “show” that and not “tell” it?

I have to admit, I’m relying on the wikipedia entry to refresh my memory of some of the details of the original plot. I thought that “natural causes” had something to do with Tarzan’s parents’ deaths – in the Disney version, they’re killed by a leopard. Tarzan’s dad is apparently seriously incompetent with a gun, since the treehouse is filled with shells and the leopard is unharmed. So is the defenseless baby Tarzan. (Ah, Disney!) In the original, it was the dominant silverback ape, Kerchak, who killed Tarzan’s father, after his mother had already succumbed to the harsh environment.

The plot of the original story is certainly not child-friendly: it involves far too much homicide. What’s kind of annoying about the movie is that the replacement theme is your typical “we can all get along even though we’re different” tripe. Also, the usual “youth takes matters into own hands, disobeys elder, causes chaos, receives reward” trope applies. (There’s a bit of similarity there to The Lion King, as well.) The way Disney makes the ape social structure so humanlike is jarring, too – especially considering the original book had a lot of “advance your social standing by offing your superior” elements as part of the ape social structure.

But honestly, there’s really not much to compare between source and Disney version – the source material is far superior. As it is, the best part of watching Disney’s Tarzan was comparing it to my memory of playing Kingdom Hearts! The Tarzan world was one of my favorites, after all.

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About pancakeloach

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