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Volume 0293

Tarzan versus Tarzan
Part 3 of 4

Tarzan a' la Disney:
Animated Ape-Man to Reveal Corporation's True Colors

by F.X.Blisard

Parts 1-3 of this series appeared in 1998 in The Nubian News, a weekly African-American newspaper published in Trenton, N.J.
Copyright ©1998, 2000 F. X. Blisard.
All rights reserved.

The author's thematic rendering of the famous
Fred Arting dust-jacket illustration for the first edition of
Tarzan of the Apes (McClurg 1914).
© 2000 by F.X. Blisard.

"Each of us in Hollywood has the opportunity to assume individual responsibility for creating films that elevate rather than denigrate, that shed light rather than dwell in darkness, that aim for the highest common denominator rather than the lowest."
--Jeffery Katzenberg, former Disney chairman
(quoted in Cineaste, July 1993, p. 49)
"We're making movies for our time.  We can't look over our shoulder and say, 'What would Walt have done?'....  I think we'll do [TARZAN] unlike anyone's ever done it before."
--Peter Schneider, President, Walt Disney Feature Animation
(quoted in Cinefantastique, June 1997, p. 21)
The ethnic romance of the Broadway "Lion King," with its mixture of Zulu chant and songs by Elton John....represents a major change in the Disney vision of ethnicity, which is no small matter.  Disney films may be the only cultural experience shared by American children....  Will Disney allow itself to reveal the dangers behind its new myth?  Is there room in the Disney universe for a sense of complication, or even for old-style reconciliation?
--Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, 12/14/97, Sect. 2, p. 37.
 June 1999 is the projected release date for Disney's (years-in-the-making and still top-secret) animated musical version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' original novel Tarzan of the Apes--to be titled simply Tarzan, in the proud Neo-Disney tradition of "definitive" treatments of diverse folks' defining folk-heroes, such as Hercules, Pocahontas, and Alladin.  Disney's 1997 releases George of the Jungle and Jungle to Jungle (both "harmless" comedies) were rather transparent trial balloons, testing the socio-political wind currents into which their Tarzan will be released.

What exactly was learned from such clever marketing surveillance (especially the short-lived promotional tie-ins with McDonald's restaurants for George) can only be guessed at.  With this year's opening of Disney's "Animal Kingdom" theme park, however, the potential marketing and merchandising tie-ins with a forthcoming "Tarzan" feature film (and direct-to-video sequel and Saturday-morning cartoon series) become much clearer.

The significance of all this for the African-American community is that, early in the planning stages of its "Tarzan" project, the studio apparently decided to retell the tale of this world-famous "African" with nary a reference to the presence of black people in Africa.  Presumably, given Disney's track record with stereotyping, the aim here was to "play it safe"--to avoid the racism of past "Tarzan" films by avoiding, in script and artwork alike, any situations that could possibly result in a racist turn of events.  Sounds simple encounters with people of another race logically means no racism, right?

This line of reasoning, of course, fails to address certain key questions, such as: How will African and African-American consumers in 1999 respond to a film that is aimed at children, yet excludes their children from identifying with any of the main characters?  Indeed, at this point in history, how can any movie, set in Africa, that does not acknowledge the historic presence of black people in Africa be construed by contemporary Africans and African Americans as anything less than an insult?  Surely, the decision to de-africanize Africa in this instance--by the same company that decided (for whatever reasons) to "afrocentrize" The Lion King in its Broadway incarnation and commissioned Oprah Winfrey to bring Toni Morrison's novel Beloved to the silver screen--must be due to some sort of breakdown in corporate communication.  Either that, or no one at Disney really "gets it" about afrocentricity, i.e., realizes how important it is to the African-American community at large.  Surely Disney, of all companies, is capable of a more creative solution to the artistic, commercial, and socio-political challenges of producing and promoting an "inclusive" retelling of this particular tale at this particular point in time.

My sources, however, say that repeated attempts by interested parties to advise Disney of the folly of such a head-in-the-sand approach to such race-sensitive material have so far fallen on deaf ears.  One group of "afrocentric" creative consultants has even offered (alas!--to no avail) to review Disney's "Tarzan" product (at any stage of production) and show them how to "afrocentrize" the film in a "minimally invasive" manner.  Perhaps what the creative folks at Disney really need to hear are the opinions of those million men and women who marched in solidarity on Washington and Philadelphia not so long ago, in demonstration and support of African American family values.  Or perhaps a few well-placed phone calls from some African American "opinion leaders" would provoke some serious thought on this issue among decision makers in the magic kingdom.

Disney, of course, is not the only creative group currently working on Tarzan's "rehabilitation."  Dark Horse Comics (the current licensee of the Tarzan comic-book franchise) has been attempting for several years now to portray Africans in a culturally sensitive manner--and largely succeeding, despite the inevitable slip-ups inherent in such an effort. Similarly, Australian media conglomerate Village Roadshow Pictures in its recent action/adventure film, Tarzan and the Lost City, despite its dismal failure at the box office, actually depicts Africans as heroes and Africa itself as the "cradle of civilization."  Such a departure from the steroetypical characterizations of  blacks and whites so painfully familiar from the "classic" Tarzan films is certainly welcome, but whether such a radical shift in artistic expression heralds an actual paradigm shift for our deeply racist society remains to be seen.  Now that Lost City is available in video stores, I, for one, am eager to know what African-Americans think of the film's well-intentioned, if dramatically flawed, attempt to depict traditional African cultures and deal with the issues of colonialism.  Ditto re: Dark Horse Comics, which has set up a toll-free number (800-862-0052) for ordering back issues of its (sadly, now defunct) Tarzan series.

Dark Horse Comics, Village Roadshow Pictures, and Walt Disney Studios  have a unique opportunity in the realm of popular culture, i.e., an opportunity not only to fill in the gaps in the checkered career of one much-abused literary figure, but actually to fill in a much more tragic gap in the public's consciousness of its own history.  Updating the "history" of the fictional character Tarzan of the Apes will require--if only for purposes of context--"re-capping" the actual historical circumstances of European colonial rule in Africa.  That is a tale worth telling, in any medium, and it should be told truthfully.  Those creative individuals and organizations that have already done so (such as Dark Horse Comics and Village Roadshow Pictures) should be encouraged by those who care about such things, if only as an example to others of the economic/commercial advantages of "getting it right."  Does anyone at Disney, for instance, have a clue as to what is/isn't afrocentric?  Or is Disney trying to create the image of "an Africa without Africans"?  (Why in the world would anyone want to do that?)

Our sources indicate that the folks at Dark Horse Comics and Village Roadshow Pictures would welcome any and all comments by African Americans on their recent creative efforts. As for Disney, the corporation's commitment to the principle of ethnic inclusivity in its animated productions has yet to be demonstrated.

Copyright © 1993 & 2000 by FX & KC Blisard

Award-winning cartoon epitomizing the author's satiric comic strip, SPOKES' PEOPLETM. The sign attached to the bole of the tree is the well-known "universal symbol of access." The "dizzying leap" from the artist's advocacy of "handicapped accessibility" to the author's advocacy of "ethnic inclusivity" in filmic adaptations of ERB's works is surely one that the ol' ape-man could manage with ease.

More ERBzine Webpages by Frank Blisard
ERBzine 0457 MEET FRANK X. BLISARD: Bio ~ Photos ~ Contents
ERBzine 0291 Tarzan vs Tarzan I
ERBzine 0292 Tarzan vs Tarzan II
ERBzine 0293 Tarzan vs Tarzan III
ERBzine 0286 Disney's Multicultural Gold (Tarzan vs Tarzan IV)
ERBzine 0359 Memoirs of Mars ~ Blisard Art & Nkima Commentary
ERBzine 0280 JACK OF TIME: ERB Time Shift Novel Intro


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