Some stories, no matter how classic or well known, age badly. It’s an inescapable consequence of social progress, and it can turn once harmless tales into culturally questionable material. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of Tarzan novels are such a case. In the early 20th Century, the story of a white man being raised by apes in Africa and eventually becoming the Lord of The Jungle was a fanciful tale of heroism, but in today’s day it also serves as a reminder of racial injustices during the period of colonialism. That is why any modern adaptation of this work must take into account the way the material has altered across the years. Disney’s 1999 animated version did this by removing colonialism all together from the agenda, instead choosing to make its villain a poacher and remove any trace of African natives. The latest live action adaptation, The Legend of Tarzan, has taken a decidedly different approach, choosing instead to confront the heavier issues head-on. But does that work in the film’s favor?
Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic pulp novels, The Legend of Tarzan begins after the titular hero (Alexander Skarsgard) has lived in England for eight years, having settled into his aristocratic life as John Clayton III, Earl of Greystoke with his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). But, when John is called back to Africa by American ambassador George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) in order to expose the horrors committed there by the Belgians, John will have to take up the mantle of Tarzan once more in order to save his homeland from the dreaded colonialists, led by the dastardly Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz).
The Legend of Tarzan starts out interestingly enough, as we are introduced to the title character as he is acclimating himself to British aristocracy. We get some interesting character details about Tarzan, like how his body has changed due to his being raised in the jungle, and Skarsgard does a great job of playing a wild man trapped in a gentleman’s suit. The chemistry between Skarsgard and Robbie as Jane is undeniable, and helps to sell the relationship which is the center of emotion in the film. It’s also in the early scenes where the film delves into the political machinations of colonialism, and though the movie really tries to explore the destructive effects of the practice, it felt a little one sided since the movie only antagonises the Belgians and not the English, who are just as guilty of committing atrocities during that period. As Tarzan returns to his homeland, he sees the direct effects of the barbaric institution which provides his motivation for the rest of the movie (until Jane is captured by Rom at least) and though it adds a layer of depth to what is otherwise a mediocre adventure flick, it wasn’t explored fully enough for it to be more than historic window dressing.
You would think that once the film moves over to Africa that it would only get better, but sadly that’s not the case. Because the Tarzan we follow has been in England for the past eight years, he’s a little too civilised for what you would expect Tarzan to be. Sure, he quickly readopts the animalistic mannerisms that allow him to communicate with the animals of Africa, but it takes a while before we finally see him swing from vines and running through trees. It’s as if the creative team behind the movie were so focused on making this a different type of Tarzan film, that they removed a lot of the things that should have made it a Tarzan movie at all. The character also isn’t helped by the fact that he gets his ass kicked more times than he wins a battle, which makes sense considering he’s been living the quiet life for eight years, but isn’t something you really want to see. In fact, it comes across as unintentionally comedic. By the time he unleashes his classic Tarzan yell, I said “Finally!” out loud in the theater, because it’s only in the last 20 minutes of the movie where, for the first time, you see the Tarzan you wanted all along. We really only see him in full-on Tarzan mode in the short flashbacks that are interspersed throughout the movie. These flashbacks help in that they save a lot of time from re-hashing the Tarzan origin story we already know, but are so short and well done that you almost wish we could have gotten a more straightforward telling of the story. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The cast is filled with quantifiably great actors, some of whom are clearly trying to elevate the material they are given, while others just coast on their inherit charms. Christoph Waltz is playing the atypical mustache twirling villain, almost a carbon copy of his performance as Blofeld in last year’s SPECTRE, while Margot Robbie seems to be present purely for superficial reasons. The problem with Jane is that even though the film starts out with her as a very modern take-care-of-herself feminist, it’s not long after she arrives in Africa that she is captured by Rom and spends the rest of the film as a damsel in distress, the very thing she so strongly tried to convince the audience she’s not. Robbie is very beautiful to be sure, but she’s also a damn fine actress, something The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t take full advantage of. Girls and guys get equal amounts of eye candy here, as Skarsgard suffers from a chronic case of missing shirt syndrome throughout the movie, fitting for the character of Tarzan. Though he excels at all the physical acting required to play the Lord of The Jungle, he lacks the charisma he so clearly had playing vampire bad boy Eric on HBO’s True Blood. Just like Robbie, it feels like he’s being restrained by the scrip, and is treated more like a Ken doll than a character.
Djimon Hounsou has a role in the film as an African tribal leader who holds a grudge against Tarzan for a past transgression, and that mysterious past immediately makes him a more interesting villain than Rom. I can see a much better movie where he is the main antagonist. The costume design for his tribe was pretty cool too, as they looked very much like a badass group of warriors. As for Samuel L. Jackson, he’s the comedic relief, and is much needed in a film almost completely devoid of humor. But, considering Jackson is playing a real life historical figure who accomplished a lot (only hinted at when the character tells Tarzan about his experience killing Native Americans during the Civil War), it would have been nice to see him do a little more than crack jokes.
The Legend of Tarzan isn’t helped by the fact that it is following in the heels of a much better jungle-themed film, The Jungle Book, which came out earlier this year. Nowhere is this more evident than in the visual effects department. Hollywood has come a long way in recent years in its ability to bring to life beautifully realistic CGI animals, so when you compare Tarzan’s apes to those found in something like The Jungle Book or Dawn of The Planet of The Apes, you can clearly see it falls short. Director David Yates, who you most likely know for having directed most of the Harry Potter films, does good work filming the various environments in the movie, from the dreariness of England to the desert plains of Africa, to the dark jungle and the swampy riverbeds, the film is incredibly scenic. There are also some entertaining action set pieces scattered throughout the film, including one on top of a train and of course the big final battle.
The Legend of Tarzan wants to do too many things at once, and in so doing doesn’t do any of them well. It wants to be a different telling of the Tarzan story while also re-hashing the same story we all know; it wants to show the serious effects of colonialism while still trying to be a fun adventure movie and, it wants to showcase Tarzan as a realistic human, while also having him take bullets without even stopping. The movie drags severely in the middle, and the plot is so predictable it feels like it was written in 2003. But, there are some exciting scenes to awe at, and the cast are entertaining to watch if nothing else. If you’re looking for some cheap thrills during these summer months, than The Legend of Tarzan will do just fine, but if you’re looking for a good Tarzan movie, just re-watch the animated version instead.
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