“Us Swedes are doing well in Hollywood right now,” one of my schoolmates said to me as we were eating lunch, “I guess they must think we’re a pretty exotic people.” “Literally,” I replied, “Alexander Skarsgård‘s going to be the next Tarzan.” I am officially not funny.
When a story as universally familiar as that of Tarzan gets another rendition, you’d better have something interesting to do with it (adding alien meteors doesn’t count). David Yates’ Legend of Tarzan doesn’t do much of anything like that, outside of its mostly convincing visual effects (and its framing device, which I’ll get to later) but even hyper-realistic CGI animals are starting to look boring to me. Both humorously and tragically, modern computers still haven’t quite managed to create an ape as believable (in terms of appearing as though it physically exists in front of the camera) as John Cleese’s character in Disney’s George of the Jungle. Costumes and puppetry – that’s where it’s at.
As mentioned, Alexander Skarsgård plays Tarzan, the vine-swinging ape-man who needs no more introduction than that. It certainly has more characters than the well-known Disney version (that probably did appear in Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ source material), including a tribe of jungle natives that killed his gorilla mother Kala when he was young and several human characters that don’t live in the jungle or even visit it.
See, this film doesn’t tell the same old origin story in “the usual way”. The stuff where Tarzan meets Jane Porter (played here by Margot Robbie) and learns how to interact with civilized folk, that’s all shown bit-by-bit in flashbacks. The film itself starts when Tarzan, already married to Jane and known as “Lord Greystoke”, has travelled to England to partake in the aftermath of the Berlin Conference and the conflict between the United Kingdom and Belgium regarding the colonization of the African Congo. The thrilling adventures of Tarzan, ladies and gents.
Tarzan, or John Clayton to cite his third and real name, is persuaded to return to the Congo with Jane and George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to investigate what the big bad Belgians are up to, with Jane mostly tagging along to fill the “distressed damsel” seat. Her frequent captor and the film’s principal antagonist is an odious Belgian captain named Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), sent by King Leopold to retrieve diamonds, indifferent to whatever immoral acts he must commit to get them. The other human characters I mentioned include the British PM as played by Jim Broadbent and a vengeful tribesman played by Djimon Hounsou, who wants Tarzan dead after he killed his son in retaliation for Kala’s demise. And yes, there are some high-tempo action scenes featuring CGI apes in the film too, don’t fear.
Revenge and greed are both low-hanging fruits in terms of coming up with a villainous motivation, but between the two villains, Hounsou’s character is far more interesting than what basically amounts to a cookie-cutter “greedy asshole”. Christoph Waltz is more or less Clayton from the Disney version, without the voice of Brian Blessed to make him compelling in spite of it all and also no intimidating combat skills. Waltz’ performance isn’t bad by any means but he has acted far better in far more riveting roles.
As for Tarzan himself, I’d say Skarsgård does well but not well enough to excuse the film’s indistinctive plot or for him to “feel” like Tarzan. Glenn Kenny of RogerEbert.com also made me chuckle when he proposed in his review: “I have to imagine that the movie spent such a long time in the development process that no one involved found a moment to look outside the Hollywood bubble and surmise that maybe right now in America isn’t the most opportune time to reboot a pop culture myth involving a quasi-superhero white guy who has dominion over the animals and certain peoples of Africa.”
The movie also suffers from pacing issues and a few action scenes that oddly seem less real and more weightless than any of the vine-surfing from the 2D-animated film with which I grew up. It’s one of those instances where more time was spent on making the creatures as detailed as possible at the expense of well-choreographed action, impactful violence, and an original script (toying with the film’s chronology doesn’t dispute that and is, by itself, a tired trick/framing device). Say, this movie is starting to look a bit like Avatar, isn’t it? Do we still need those four sequels?
I should praise the film on some points, to be fair. The film does indeed look a sight several times and the music (by Rupert Gregson-Williams) fits the visuals neatly. The performances I suppose are fine (no matter how wrong it sounds to hear Jane Porter speak with a heavy American accent), with Samuel L. Jackson’s being perhaps the most entertaining.
Furthermore, I’m sure all the political drama revolving around Britain and Belgium’s strife over Congo appeared in the books at some point; can’t say I’ve gotten around to reading them. It’s not what most fans of Tarzan attended the screening to see, although there is some of that as well so I won’t complain too harshly. Even so, I’m only recommending this film if you’re such a fanatic Tarzan lover that you’ll watch him do anything. The movie is nothing extraordinary, it does have a few unfortunate implications regarding race in spite of its sometimes visible attempts to avoid racism (see the Kenny review), and it is never once bad in ways that would make me recommend it as a “so bad it’s hilarious” experience. Sometimes the worst thing you can make is something average and mediocre – in spite of having “technically” made a better movie than the weird German Tarzan from 2013.
With all the hype surrounding the recent Jungle Book remake, I’m almost disappointed that the trailer for this new Tarzan film didn’t feature at least one song by Phil Collins, even though it’s not actually another Disney remake. It might have worked on me, though. Disney’s Tarzan was my favorite Disney film growing up. Even a cynic like me can have his nostalgia manipulated if you pick the right movies.