When it comes to making animated movies, no studio can hold a candle to Disney. The company has churned out countless classics going all the way back to 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but perhaps its most impressive string of hits came in the 1990s. Now, the grand finale of that era, Tarzan, is coming to Netflix on June 23. And while the full list of Netflix's June releases is coming out on May 23, just knowing ahead of time that Tarzan will be streaming on the site should be enough to excite all you '90s kids.
The 1980s were a pretty dark period for Disney animation. Ask most fans about their all-time favorite animated films from the Mouse House and it's unlikely you'll get an example from the Reagan era. This was the decade in which Disney churned out forgettable films like The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, and the dreadful The Black Cauldron. Disney was often overshadowed in the '80s by the arguably higher quality films being put out by the studio of former Disney animator Don Bluth; films like An American Tail, The Secret of NIMH, and The Land Before Time. But that would change by the close of the decade.
What's now referred to as the Disney Renaissance kicked off in 1989 with the release of The Little Mermaid. The film was a throwback to the fondly remembered Disney animated films of the 1950s and 1960s in that it adapted a classic story and turned it into a Broadway-style musical. The film was a huge success, and Disney used the same formula again and again throughout the '90s. First came Beauty and the Beast in 1991, followed by Aladdin in '92, The Lion King in '94, Pocahontas in '95, The Hunchback of Notre Dame in '96, and Hercules in '97. But since all good things come to an end, both the '90s and the Disney Renaissance called it quits after Tarzan swung into theaters in 1999.
Tarzan ended up being a fitting end for the Disney Renaissance, as the film both honored the traditions of the studio's past while also looking ahead to its future. The film was a musical, like every other Disney film of the era, but it was a different type of musical. Instead of the characters singing (though they do sing a bit), Tarzan mostly featured custom-made backing tracks from rocker Phil Collins. And while at first glance that may have seemed like an odd fit, the songs ended up being a perfect match to both the jungle action and the emotional beats seen in the movie. Just try not to picture baby Tarzan with his adoptive mother Kala whenever you hear "You'll Be in My Heart." It can't be done.
The film's animation was also unique for the time period. While the characters of Tarzan were hand-drawn, like the other films of the Disney renaissance, much of the movie's background was created using CGI. It wasn't the first Disney animated movie to use computer animation, but it was the first to do so on such a large scale. A new computer animation technique called Deep Canvas was developed for the film, which allowed the 2D characters to move through a 3D-painted world. "Deep Canvas is like creating a 3D painting," animator and Deep Canvas developer Dan St. Pierre told MovieMaker.com in 1999.
"When you begin to move the camera into the painting, you suddenly realize that you're going into the painting. You aren't limited by walking straight ahead, which is what we had in the 2D animation world." Following Tarzan, Disney began to rely on CG animation more and more, and today the studio's film division exclusively animates using computer imagery, with its last traditional 2D animated feature being 2011's Winnie the Pooh.
Tarzan is an old school hand-drawn musical that also features modern computer animation and chart-topping pop songs. While it wasn't clear at the time, the movie ended up being the perfect bridge between the hand-drawn Disney musicals of the '90s and the computer-animated, number one hit-spawning Disney films of the modern era, such as Frozen. And now, thanks to Netflix, you can once again experience the generation-spanning Disney magic that is Tarzan.