By: Alyssa Malott
The 1999 animated Disney film Tarzan is based on a book series by Edgar Rice Burroughs and features the story of a bereaved gorilla mother raising a human baby as her own after his shipwrecked parents are killed by a leopard. Tarzan, as the boy comes to be named, initially upsets the balance of the gorilla society and draws suspicion from the gorilla leader (and his adoptive father), Kerchak. As an outsider, and a human no less, Tarzan initially struggles to fit in with his new family, but eventually settles into life with the gorillas, learning their language and movements—becoming one of them despite being a different species. This balance between that which is human and that which is animal translates to the relationship between civilization and nature, as the intrusion of outsiders disrupts the utopian isolation of the jungle. Bridging this gap between these two worlds is Tarzan, who functions as a noble savage—a literary trope that describes a character who is considered uncivilized, but who is ultimately virtuous or good—linking two vastly different spheres of life.
The jungle setting of the film, through which Tarzan maneuvers with ease and agility, is a fortress of vegetation that guards the gorilla nest from outside harm. Tarzan’s relationship with the gorillas (and the jungle itself) is evident in his ability to communicate with animals and deftly navigate the land. Tarzan was not raised by humans, and his language, clothing, and actions all reflect that; he is not “civilized,” but wild. These focuses on isolation, fellowship with the earth, and innocent primitivism are all cornerstones of nature-based utopias. Tarzan takes place in an uncharted jungle wilderness and features a human so enmeshed in a gorilla family structure that, for all intents and purposes, he becomes a gorilla. Until a group of explorers arrives to study the gorillas (and thus come to discover Tarzan), the animals had never truly had contact with the outside “civilized” world. These explorers, which include Professor Porter, his daughter Jane, and a hunter named Clayton, breach the isolation of Tarzan’s world and introduce elements of civilized society to the jungle.
After the isolation of the jungle is compromised, Tarzan emerges as a figure caught between the world of civilization (Jane and the explorers) and the wild (the gorillas). This relationship between civilization and primitivism is what ultimately leads to the introduction of Tarzan as the noble savage. A noble savage character is representative of the uncorrupted goodness of “uncivilized” peoples, in opposition to the amorality of civilized societies. Noble savage characters hearken back to a simpler pre-civilized time when there was less industry and depravity. In Tarzan, many of the utopian elements of the film are directly related to the inclusion of a noble savage character. The noble savage confronts the difference between the simplicity of “barbarism” and the deviance of civilization; he is an idealized projection of a comfortable relationship between nature and humanity, a relationship that serves as the basis for many nature-centered utopias as well. Tarzan is part of the wild yet also malleable enough to civilize, and his ultimate decision to stay in the jungle with Jane and Professor Porter saves him from the corruption of civilized society and fulfills a utopian desire for humans to return to their more primitive ways.
The noble savage, like utopia, is a romanticized concept that relies on a human desire for something better or simpler, something that appeals to antiquity or feels like it has somehow been lost to time, a counter to our own society. In Tarzan, isolation, fellowship with the earth, and innocent primitivism are elements that are featured both in the utopian jungle setting of the film and also within the character of Tarzan himself, the noble savage, the embodiment of something uncorrupted and good, and the quintessential balance between nature and humanity.