Tarzan swings…and misses
Like a thick jungle mist, rumors surrounding The Legend of Tarzan were abundant and ominous. Perhaps the biggest question around this movie was “why?” Why another Tarzan movie? Does the world really need another one?
Apparently Hollywood thought so. Harry Potter director, David Yates led the charge into wilds, taking the well-trodden story and attempting to imbibe it with some fresh movie magic. To start, the film is visually stunning. Yates makes copious use of color to tell Tarzan’s story, which begins, not in the rainforests of Africa, but in London.
Stripped down and dreary, the opening of the film is anesthetized and sterile. So too is the dialogue. The story begins in the middle, with Tarzan/Lord John Clayton running his family estate. A beefy Alexander Skarsgård plays the domesticated wild man who seems intent on fitting in with English society. Even if it means his face looks constipated throughout most of the first act.
The question of how to get Tarzan back from the civilized Clayton is resolved when the American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) convinces him to take up an invitation to return to the Congo. George is apparently on some sort of undercover mission and needs Tarzan to take him into Africa.
Margot Robbie plays the token character of Jane. Bright eyed, blonde and superficial in her character development, she forces Tarzan to take her with him. Her role is hardly imaginative and is unfortunately but not unexpectedly rote.
Once in Africa, the world bursts with color. Tarzan is greeted by tribes and CGI beasts. The story itself is predictable. Christoph Waltz plays white man baddie, Leon Rom whereas Djimon Hounsou plays evil tribal baddie. There’s a forced feeling of conflict that is faintly reminiscent of Blood Diamond (you may recall Djimon was also in that film also). White man wants to pillage and rape the land of its resources (including humans).
Of course, all Tarzan stories have the man-v-nature element and this film doesn’t disappoint. The battles are brutal in the extreme and actually choreographed quite well. If the bear scene in The Revenant made you cringe, you might grimace at the gorilla smack down in this movie. Tarzan is in no way superior to his ape counterparts, which is a nice surprise. He is in no way the king of beasts.
However, this film just ends up falling flat on its face. The CGI animals are impressive but there is still something off about them. Much like The Jungle Book earlier this year, the animals look great until they start moving about. (Seems like CGI animation has yet to catch up with animal realism.)
When it comes to storytelling this film just disappoints on every level. Jane inevitably gets kidnapped. The pathetic smear of her character development is so bad it might as well have not been there. White man is evil and greedy while the noble-savage trope is flung carelessly around.
And then there is the strange and uncomfortable relationship between Tarzan and George. Tarzan is the consummate jungle master in Africa, while the African American is portrayed as a bumbling fool. There’s something awkward about it and subconsciously racist. Perhaps Yates with Yates being British, he didn’t catch the undertones of bigotry, but out of all the failings of The Legend of Tarzan this one stings the most.
The only thing this film has going for it is the visual direction—even if Tarzan swinging on a never-ending vine is still as ridiculous as its first iteration in 1918.
- Kaely Monahan is an entertainment reporter and creator of the film review podcast Popcorn Fan Film Reviews.