26/05/2017

Tarzan - Rock & Roll Nerds: Disney And The Dead Parent Thing

Thoughts On: Tarzan (1999)


An orphaned boy is raised by a gorilla, but one day encounters creatures that look like himself.


Tarzan is way up there as one of my favourite Disney films as it has always, even when I was a kid as I remember, resonated with me in a somewhat visceral sense. This comes down to the immense energy, both physically and emotionally, that this narrative conjures from the word go. In fact, it is almost undeniable that this is a significant film for Disney in respect to action - especially considering all that came before (the only competitor being Aladdin). But, added to this, the sound track provided by Phil Collins is absolutely incredible; it only takes a few bars of each song until you have to give in to the perfect accompaniment of image and sound that is truly some of best work of this type that Disney has put out. And so, it's through these two brilliant elements that you see the monumental power, both physically and emotionally, that this narrative builds.

What I then want to discuss today is essentially where that energy goes; in short, how this funnels into the structure of this narrative. Before working towards this though, I'll preface by saying that this will, in some ways, be an extension of the previous post in the series in which we considered a more general idea of the family film. In such, we'll be developing the idea that family films have certain characteristics that appeal to a target audience, characteristics that inadvertently seem to reveal a little something about ourselves.

So, to start, let's step back and considered the depiction of families in Disney movies...


Snow White. No real mention of parents, the step mother is evil.


Pinocchio. A single father with a near-real son.


Dumbo. No father to speak of, mother is incarcerated for the majority of the narrative.


Bambi. A distant father and a mother who dies.


Cinderella. Dead parents, evil step mother and a fantastical fairy godmother.


Alice In Wonderland. A sister, but no real mention of parents.


Peter Pan. Our first outlier. Whilst Peter is an orphan, there is a full, happy-for-the-most-part family around Wendy and the boys.


Sleeping Beauty. Both parents are around, but the family is torn apart for years on end.


101 Dalmatians. Full family - very full.


The Sword In The Stone. No parents, a near-Cinderella story with a dickish adopted family.


The Jungle Book. Orphaned boy left in a jungle to die.


The Aristocats. No dad, but a highly flirtatious mother.


The Little Mermaid. No mother mentioned at all.


Beauty And The Beast. A dead mother and a weird father.


Aladdin. Orphaned street rat.


Lion King. As we all know, dad dies, mother left to be slapped around by evil uncle.


Toy Story. No mention of dad, just an implication that maybe he left behind some toys.


Hercules. 'Family' is torn apart. (Family in this one's a bit complicated though).


Mulan. Another outlier. Bother parents are hanging in here - there's even a grandmother, though, also a bunch of dead ancestors.


This brings us to Tarzan... yep, dead parents. You even see their bodies...


... which is pretty audacious. Oh, and add to this, this scene...


That said, we can continue to find more examples of this if we look beyond Tarzan, but, as is quite notoriously clear, there is a paradigm within Disney films that isn't very concerned with depicting full and happy families. Whilst I have no critique of this, it is a pretty glaring paradigm because, after all, these are all films aimed towards families. This is then such an overt and noticeable paradox because you wouldn't think that the majority of romance films were focused on single people. Whilst you could argue that there is a tension in romance films between couples, this conflict is put in place with the inevitable implication that there will be some form of romantic equilibrium established in the end of the narrative; girl and boy always come back together. This paradigm does exist, to a certain extent, within Disney films as families are torn apart, but do come together - often in unconventional groupings. For example, the orphan princess of Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty finds her Prince Charming - as does Ariel and Belle - Aladdin his Princess Charming. What's more, in films such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, The Sword In The Stone, Lion King, Toy Story and Tarzan, we see families form across different species and organisms of varying classes. This says that it would certainly be hyperbolic to suggest that Disney films are fixated on tearing families apart. Nonetheless, there is something going on under the surface here.

The best way to begin to understand this paradigm would be to take a look at a comedic song by Tim Minchin...


As dumb as this song is, the artifice inadvertently embellished by the dated, T.V aesthetics and sensibilities, what lies at the heart of this is... heart. And this is what the best of Minchin's work seems to expose, however ludicrous. What this song is then about is a predicament of 'all heart, no facade'. In such, whilst he may be a rockstar within, he's certainly not on the outside, leaving him a mere rock and roll nerd. There is a clear wit about this song for this very reason. Moreover, this is an idea that stretches to all those watching as most people have some kind of passion, obsession or love in life, but probably aren't the Bruce Lee, Jimmy Hendrix, Muhammad Ali or Marlon Brando of their craft. And what this simply means is that very few people are 'the complete package'.

This idea is, of course, true in all elements of life; we aren't anything near perfect in every or any regard. However, within us is the rock and roll nerd that thinks about his girlfriend dying, or, there is, if we fool our selves into seeing it, Han Solo in our reflection...


What this all of course draws upon is the wish fulfilment element of art. But, what I want to focus on is the rock and roll nerd side of this coin, as opposed to the Han Solo reflection one, as one obviously seems a little more complex than the other.

So, whilst believing you're something you're not to feel good makes sense, believing you're in greater hardships than you are is a bit ridiculous. But, people do this as they believe suffering, and those who suffer, are cooler than everyone else. This is why we usually root for the underdog in many aspects of life, and so, the Han Solo image is not too far removed from a rock and roll nerd paradigm after all. The best example of this would, of course, be Bruce Lee...


Whilst he is widely considered the coolest thing that has ever existed, this isn't just about his skills as a fighter and the films he was in. There is a thesis and antithesis within Bruce Lee. He wasn't a perfect Herculean figure, rather, an immigrant with an immense skill set that somehow made it to be one of the biggest stars in history through incredibly hard work - an imperfect synthesis. The same can be said about Arnold Schwarzenegger (though, he has the Herculean figure). In fact, everyone from Muhammad Ali to Jimmi Hendrix to Charlie Chaplin, some of the most iconic figures in the world, had to struggle an inordinate amount to get where they wanted. So, when looking at such figures, you can see, in a certain sense, rock and roll nerds that redefined the standards of 'rockstar'.

Now, what on Earth has this got to do with dead parents in Disney films? As you could probably presume, this has a lot to do with our attraction to underdogs - those rock and roll nerds that redefined standards. This is exactly what Tarzan is...


A baby somehow adapts to survive in one of the most dangerous environments he could possibly be put in, a jungle. But, he not only manages to fit in with his family of gorillas, but also manages to balance the divide in himself between this adaptation and his latent humanity - and this is what Jane represents.


But, this foundation is strengthened when we know that Tarzan doesn't have a mother and father. This is so poignant, considering that this is a family movie, because, as a kid, you can look around you and, in all likelihood, see parents. Those parents of course make your life possible and very easy, so when you consider the relative distance between yourself and Tarzan, there's a huge divide. However, the closer we come to the conclusion of this movie, the closer we come to ourselves - Tarzan with a family around him. In fact, by the end of the narrative, Tarzan transcends our own selves. He starts out without a family, something that we understand that he needs like we do, but somehow fights a way to being stronger than we could ever imagine ourselves to be whilst also getting that family we thought he needed.

The crux of the rock and roll nerd paradigm is then conflict being overcome and ourselves, as a viewing audience, vicariously experiencing that. The dead parent thing within Disney films is a way of instilling this within a family/kids' film. After all, the most emotionally intense Disney films are those that contain the greatest focus on lost parents: Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, The Lion King and, most certainly, Tarzan. On the other hand, what are the lightest, easiest going, Disney films? Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty and Hercules. Why? All of these films have a strong presence of parents, leaving them to find conflict through less intense themes.

It is then through Tarzan that we find the clearest example of why dead parents are a thing within Disney films. This not only distances characters from ourselves to the result of empathy, but allows them to transcend ourselves when they find their equilibrium that, in certain senses, resembles that of a family watching the movie. It is then we that are the rock and roll nerds in respect to themes of family as we sympathise with these characters and are enthralled by these narratives - all with the end result being a build-up to seeing Han Solo in our reflection.

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