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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Nick – Delusion, Trust, Reality

Thoughts On: Nick (a.k.a Outlier) (2016)

Having managed to find a film for a country we missed in the World Cinema Series, we’re going to backtrack a little for a film made in Ordino, Andorra by Jose Pozo.


Nick is a mystery thriller centred on a self-secluded police officer whose troublesome half-brother has been sent to stay with her. Within days of arriving, her brother, Nick, witnesses a murder that nobody believes he saw. It’s from this point on that the brother, sister, her friend as well as another police officer struggle against disbelief as they try to find some common ground and resolution amongst one another.

Though this sounds like a simple film, Nick is a pretty ambitious attempt at tackling complex themes. Well directed and shot, the only real issues with this film come down to the acting, sound design and elements of the script. In such, the script does well in building many of the characters into complex and compelling people, but has lapses in which characterisation is flat and weakly exposited. Moreover, the acting ranges from pretty good to rather shaky, which further emphasises the intermittently bland characterisation of certain figures – Nick primarily. And lastly, the sound track often works well in sustaining an atmosphere, but the use of sound in the jump scare sequences is pretty terrible and entirely unneeded.

This all leaves this film with a pretty solid tone and aesthetic that only momentarily appears sub-par. One detail that really didn’t help this, and was rather jarring, was what seemed to be the shutter speed or frame rate. In such, some scenes had a rough sense of movement to them whilst others were more fluid. This seemed to be an intentional effect at some points, one that had links to the narrative and so implied artifice in photographic technology, but, at other points, this play with the shutter speed or frame rate seemed like a mistake. I could be wrong as this is a small detail that is hard to pick up on, but there was certainly some elements of movement and action in this narrative that brought in a somewhat ugly aesthetic.

From this point we will be delving further into the narrative with spoilers, so I’ll end this segment by saying that Nick was a surprisingly good film that I’d certainly recommend.


To all those who have seen this film or don’t mind hearing more about its details, Nick is essentially a blend of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (a film we’ve covered) and Scorsese’s Shutter Island. In such, it uses the facade of a mystery or thriller film to explore notions of reality – both in relation to technology and psychology. What’s more, there is a twist of fantasy and horror that doesn’t really amount to much.

So, as this narrative builds and the case of the witnessed murder is investigated, it becomes quite clear that the plot is not really the focus of this narrative. Instead of answers being the end goal, this film is more about the process of understanding. We see this as characters grow to trust one another, learn to read each other better and in turn facilitate and empathise with them. A key element of the narrative in which this occurs is a sub-plot concentrated on an old woman whose newspapers are being stolen every morning. It eventually turns out that she was falsely reporting this just so that our protagonists would come visit her every morning. We see a very similar paradigm play out with another figure, a woman who has lost her dog. Again, she falsely reports this just for the attention and eventually is given a dog to take care of.

This all plays out in-parallel to the main plot of Nick trying to solve the case of murder whilst surrounded by disbelief to imply that maybe he is just doing this for attention. What we see develop over this narrative is our main character, Margret, coming to terms with such an idea and growing to trust/empathise with her brother like she did the two ladies who falsely reported cases for attention. This was the aspect of the narrative that hooked me and kept me invested as these are interesting themes that are explored quite well. However, with the ending, after an ambiguous anti-climax involving the killer, it turns out that maybe Nick wasn’t making things up. This all comes down to the final image of a missing persons file that seemingly confirms the fact that the people Nick saw were in fact murdered – or are at least missing.

However, there are still questions to be had with this end. Nick took pictures of the killer, but he never shows up in them. He surmises that this is because he is a vampire. This is incredibly ludicrous and, in not seeing the point of this being a fantasy film with vampires within, I don’t think the twist ending is as simple as it seems.

At first, I thought that this implied that even though we should falsely trust people at times, facilitating their lies as to be kind, we sometimes can be wrong in extending such a courtesy to someone and should maybe try to believe others. This is an all right ending that throws a monkey wrench into a conclusion that’d be much like that of Blow-Up’s – though also a weakly handled caveat to the narrative message that wasn’t built towards very well. However, having gone over this narrative in my head for a while, there’s an element of this script that has become more and more prominent to me. Almost all of the main characters in this film are women; the only police officers are women and there are in total about 7 guys in the town. Maybe this comes down to the fact that there are so few people in the town all together, but there is nonetheless a clear concentration on male and female dichotomies.

With the ending, the ‘killer’ lying about his identity as to go on a date with our protagonist’s best friend – and possibly to kill her – this is further emphasised. Furthermore, this killer murders a couple on a date and all of the women in this narrative have conflicts with men – they either don’t like them, have lost a partner or are struggling to establish a relationship with one. When you add the character of Nick into the situation, who is an asshole throughout the film that threatens and intimidates his sister constantly, it seems that there is an intention to comment on males and females through this narrative.

However, having mulled over this for quite some time, I can’t find a good reason for this to be an element of the narrative as there are no clear relations to themes of reality, delusion and trust depicted. So, if you have seen this film and have an idea of the point that this builds to, I’d like to hear what you think down below.

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