"The cartoon must be good. It must approximate Disney excellence." -- Edgar Rice Burroughs, writing about the possibility of an animated Tarzan movie in 1936.
More than a few of the motion pictures featuring Burroughs' man-ape character have been awful (most recent examples include 1981's "Tarzan the Ape Man" or 1998's "Tarzan and the Lost City"). So why on Earth would anyone want to do another one?Actually, the fact that so many big-screen Tarzans have failed probably just invigorated the creative geniuses at Walt Disney Pictures' animation house, who have defiantly responded "Why not?" to that question.
"We wanted to make a 'Tarzan' that no one had seen before -- one that was more like the character as he was originally written, which certainly couldn't be done in a live-action movie," said Chris Buck, co-director of Disney's new animated "Tarzan" feature.
"We had to have a Tarzan who actually behaved like an ape, yet looked like a man," animator Glen Keane elaborated. "And it would be impossible for any actor to be able to do that. The stunts alone would kill any man."
(Both men were in town recently to promote the new film, which opened in theaters nationwide on Friday.)
Unlike previous cinematic Tarzans, the Disney version really does perform like an ape-man, swinging through the trees, as well as "surfing" down tree branches, with relative ease.
"His movements are based on those of real animals and professional surfers and skateboarders," said Keane, who admits that he got some inspiration from his son, a fanatical skateboarder.
"Skilled skaters have this incredibly fluid body movement. And that's what we wanted to give our Tarzan," he said. "We studied hours of footage from professional athletes to see how they do their amazing stunts."
Speaking of study, Buck, co-director Kevin Lima and most of the animators also went to Kenya and Uganda to watch gorillas and other jungle animals in their native environment.
"That was the really hard part of this job," Buck joked. "But seriously, it was unbelievably moving -- just to be able to see these beautiful animals and look in their eyes, to see the intelligence beneath. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
"To be honest, I don't think it would have been possible to do this film without the trip," Keane said. "It had a huge impact on the way we designed the characters."
With notebooks filled with creature and environment sketches, the animators returned to Hollywood and Paris (where one of Disney's largest animation studios is located) to get down to work. As for Buck, he and Lima then had the difficult task of selecting the film's voice cast.
"When we auditioned actors, we avoided looking at their faces," he said. "We just wanted to hear their voices so we wouldn't be prejudiced by what they looked like. We wanted strong, distinctive voices, not good looks, necessarily."
Instead, that made auditioning a rather unnerving experience for the actors, said Tony Goldwyn, who wound up voicing the adult Tarzan in the movie.
"Their unique method (of auditioning) can't help but make you even more nervous," Goldwyn said in a separate telephone interview. "I kept trying to make eye contact, and they wouldn't look at me, which made me think I was doing something wrong."
However, in that regard Goldwyn really was wrong.
"We went through a lot of Tarzans, but when Tony read for us, we knew we had found the right guy," Buck said. "His voice is very powerful, and he would kind of growl his lines, which seemed pretty appropriate."
On a similar note, Minnie Driver was "the perfect Jane," according to Buck.
"She even made us change our whole way of thinking about her character, which wasn't originally written as being so funny," he said. "Minnie was so naturally funny that we wound up giving her more comedic things to do."
Unlike other recent Disney animated features, no singing voices were needed for the major characters. That's because all but one of the songs are performed by Phil Collins, who wrote them as well.
In fact, Disney's "Tarzan" uses its songs in a different way, as a method to progress and compress a complex and involved story line. (For example, Tarzan's "origin" is told through a series of flashbacks, accompanied by the song "Two Worlds.")
"Phil did a great job on the songs," Buck said. "Because of him we didn't have to hurry our storytelling -- we didn't have to skimp on characterizations. Maybe we should have given him a screenwriting credit."
Aiding the animators working on the project was a new background enhancement process called "deep canvas."
A three-dimensional, digitally created background, "deep canvas" allows the characters to interact more realistically with their surroundings and adds needed depth to what are normally two-dimensional drawings, Keane said.
"It's amazing to draw these characters, and then see them projected into this kind of backdrop," he said. "Without this, the film would have looked great. But to see Tarzan swinging or sliding through this animated set is just incredible."
"It's groundbreaking," Buck agreed. "This is going to set a new standard for film animation, and that's not just bragging."
In fact, Buck isn't sure he'll ever to be able to top what he's done with the movie.
"It's made me a little hesitant about some of the talk at the studio about doing a sequel already -- even if people really want to see it," he said. "It would be hard to live up to the expectations."