Tarzan – The ape-man is one of the most prominent characters of twentieth-century fiction, dating back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes in 1912. There were actually a lot of Tarzan books, but I’ve only ever read the first. The character was partially inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli stories, which Disney also made into a movie, but the idea of a human child raised by animals is obviously much older than that. Romulus and Remus come to mind. Anyway, as is typical, the changes made to the original story in the Disney film are largely to soften the tale and to work in some moral lessons, as is typical for them. Tarzan’s encounters with native African humans are omitted entirely, which is a good thing as Burroughs’ portrayal was typically racist. This conveniently helps to simplify the story, but also removes some of the conflict. I’d say the character who was most affected by Disney’s softening was Kerchak, the leader of the apes.
In the book, he’s totally violent and kills Kala’s ape baby and Tarzan’s father. Eventually, Tarzan flat-out challenges and kills Kerchak. In the film, he still disapproves of Tarzan, but develops some respect for him over time and admits upon dying (not at Tarzan’s own hand this time) that he was wrong. I think this is reflective of one of the main differences between Burroughs and Disney, which is that Burroughs’ animals act like animals, while Disney’s are pretty human. As such, the message becomes one of tolerance, both of the apes for Tarzan and between the apes and humans in general. It’s essentially the same basic story with a totally different theme.
As for the characters I haven’t addressed yet, Tarzan himself looks like Weird Al, particularly since the movie came out around when Al stopped wearing glasses. His moves were apparently based on skateboarding.
Jane and her father were changed from American to British, perhaps because the same thing had been done in many earlier Tarzan films. The famous Tarzan yell also comes from these movies. The villain was simply called Clayton; the character in the book was named William Clayton and was actually Tarzan’s cousin, although he doesn’t know it. Also, while he’s a rival to Tarzan for Jane’s love, he’s never openly evil like he is in the cartoon. The movie Clayton’s main trait is firing off his gun at every possible opportunity, but he also has a plan to capture Tarzan’s ape companions and bring them back to England. He ends up accidentally hanging himself, a rather gruesome death but one that really isn’t anyone’s fault. In the original story, Jane, her father, and Clayton all leave Africa. Jane eventually does marry Tarzan and come back to the jungle to stay, but not until later in the series. In the movie, not only does she stay, but so does her father. Finally, Tarzan’s two friends, Rosie O’Donnell’s sassy ape Terk and Wayne Knight’s cowardly elephant Tantor, really don’t add a whole lot to the proceedings. But hey, what’s a Disney animated movie without some comical animal companions?
I realize I’ve mostly talked about how Disney adapted the story rather than whether or not I liked it, but I think that’s largely because I didn’t have particularly strong feelings about it. It was all right, and there were some quite emotional moments, but I wouldn’t say it was among Disney’s best work.