The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and whose first adventure was published in 1912, there have been countless adaptations of the classic Tarzan story — the most notable being Disney’s 1999 animated feature, along with Hugh Hudson’s über-serious Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) — but none have felt fresher than Warner Bros.’ latest re-imagining; granted, there hasn’t been a live-action Tarzan movie in over a decade. So, if you’re eager to see the vine-swinger plonked into a more contemporary setting, The Legend of Tarzan kind of delivers, the ape man’s newest action-spectacle taking place in the 1880s, at the commencement of King Leopold II’s exploitative colonisation of the Free Congo State, the greedy Belgian monarch having become the founder and sole owner of the central African district, exploiting the land and its people for his own voracious gain.
Still, The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t quite live-up to its thrilling fact-meets-fiction premise, the film falling into mildly entertaining territory thanks to some engaging action sequences and commendable cutting-edge VFX produced by Framestore, who have created a stunning photo-realistic rainforest, complete with all the native flora and fauna one would expect to find in these lush yet unforgiving terrains — we have expertly-rendered CGI gorillas, a herd of digital ostriches, some hungry water buffalo, and a legion of computer-generated wildebeests. Funnily, there were no real animals used in the making of the movie, the bulk shot on soundstages and backlots with practical sets and CG extensions.
Our story opens eight years after Tarzan’s return to Great Britain, the orphaned boy raised in the harsh jungles of Africa by the Mangani great apes following the tragic passing of his mother and father, who were left stranded on the island after a shipwreck. Going by the name John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård), we learn that, since his homecoming, the man formerly known as Tarzan has taken up his aristocratic birth name and title, the reinstated Earl of Greystoke settling down in London with his beautiful American wife, Jane Clayton (Margot Robbie), at his ancestral home, the grand Greystoke manor. With John’s celebrated tales as ‘the ape man’ spreading far and wide, the near-celebrity is formerly requested to lead an expedition to Boma (a port town on the Congo River) by King Leopold — via the British Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) — to report on the progress being made in the Congo by Belgium. Greystoke, however, politely declines, wanting to leave his past behind him.
Present at this ceremonious invitation is black American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) — a real-life politician, Civil War veteran, and groundbreaking journalist. Chasing down John on the bustling streets of London, Williams begs Greystoke to reconsider the offer, revealing in private his suspicions of the Belgian king’s shady operation, Leopold supposedly enslaving natives to make back his debts, his country on the verge of bankruptcy due to vast over-borrowing — used to finance the construction of railroads and other pricy infrastructures. And so, Williams coerces our protagonist into taking the trek, suggesting that if John really is ‘Africa’s favorite son,’ and its rightful ruler, he should accept the summons simply to check things out. Jane, of course, wishes to tag along, John begging the lady of the house to stay behind, unsure of what potential dangers they might encounter. Jane, however, quickly reminds her strapping husband that she, too, grew up on the Dark Continent, and has been missing her village home (being part of the Kuba tribe) and all of her friends ever since. Naturally, Tarzan relents, allowing his wife to accompany him and diplomat Williams on their journey.
Thing is, Mr. T is unaware that this safari is all just an elaborate hoax to get the him back on the African Island, the scheme orchestrated by Captain Léon Rom (the historic figure played here by Christoph Waltz), a corrupt Belgian colonel who’s constantly seen carrying a Rosary, the prayer device sometimes doubling as a fatal short-distance noose. You see, the villainous Rom had been instructed by Leopold to secure the fabled diamonds of Opar (which, if acquired, would result in large profits for the crooked King); his army, though, is swiftly murdered by Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and his fierce clan of spear-wielding leopard men, the battalion ambushed in the tribe’s foggy, cavern-surrounded hideout. With his life spared, Rom strikes a deal with the Opar-region’s guardian, who seeks vengeance on Tarzan for the death of his son, Hounsou’s imposing Mbonga willing to exchange shiny minerals for a chance to slay his sworn enemy.
Steered by David Yates — his first directorial effort since overseeing the last four chapters in the Harry Potter franchise — working from a screenplay by Craig Brewer, Hustle & Flow (2005), and Adam Cozad, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), The Legend of Tarzan has a lot going on (almost too much); on the one hand there’s a scratchy plot that aims to comment on white settlement, chiefly the barbaric Congolese slave trade of the 1880s, and on the other, a silly quasi-superhero romp about an Anglo-Saxon ‘savior’ who can talk to animals — think an above-water Aquaman or an ultra-buff Dr. Dolittle. For this reason, the resulting film winds up feeling too convoluted and tonally muddled, The Legend of Tarzan lacking narrative flow and coherency — it’s often tough trying to fully grasp the severity of the stakes. Rubbing salt into the wound, moviemakers even trivialize actual crimes of the era for storytelling purposes. And this leads to the question of who is its intended audience? The film is too political for youngsters and too goofy for adults. Sure, it’s cool seeing the iconic strong-arm man integrated into an alternate timeline, but the sheer complexity and heaviness of the storyline makes this 21st Century update too dark and disorderly, especially for a movie that’s marketed as a summer popcorn muncher. And, honestly, it’s a bit of a bore.
Moreover, the direction by the (now) 54-year-old Yates lacks oomph and emotion, proceedings playing out in a stark and lackluster manner — save for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), I’m simply not a fan of the guy’s work. Some of the sweeping aerial shots, photographed in the ravishing jungles of Gabon, are truly quite breathtaking, but the overall aesthetic is cold and lifeless, the dreary cinematography by Henry Braham, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), disservicing the richly detailed production design by Stuart Craig (who worked on all eight Harry Potter pictures). Take the flashback scenes, for example, in which the primitive monkey-man comes face-to-face with the curious, kind-hearted Jane, the visuals overlayed with a tacky Instagram-looking filter — talk about uninspired. On the upside, The Legend of Tarzan features many of the trademark tropes synonymous with the timeless tale — we get looming monster-sized apes, and plenty of swinging and swaying through mazelike tangles of plants and trees, these moments some of the most exciting.
Performances on the whole are sadly quite stoic. While ticking all the right boxes, physically, Alexander Skarsgård — best known for his role as Eric Northman on television’s True Blood (2008-14) — lacks depth as the titular Tarzan, the chiselled hunk missing that movie-star magnetism, Skarsgård unable to carry the show on his strapping, muscular shoulders — and, sorry ladies, there’s no loincloth here. The typically perky Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad (2016), is forgettable as upper class Victorian-era babe Jane Clayton (previously Jane Porter), whose character has been given more spunk and sass, and needs no saving. Despite this ‘modernisation,’ however, the feisty young lass is still reduced to a damsel in distress; at one point, she claims to be ‘no damsel,’ which is kinds ironic, given that Jane, becoming soiled and soaked, spends a bulk of the action chained to a river steamer. And, oh, the sizzling 26-year-old shares zero chemistry with Skarsgård’s hulking vine man.
Elsewhere, Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight (2015), is squandered as black man George Washington Williams, a 19th Century globetrotting freedom fighter, the character coming off as comic relief, oddly portrayed by Sammy J as a type of wisecracking sidekick who chases after Tarzan, his role in stamping out slavery underplayed in order to boost our hero’s valour — now that’s low! Playing another watered-down historical figure, the great Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained (2012), phones it in as smarmy antagonist Léon Rom, a guy responsible for numerous real-world atrocities. At least Djimon Hounsou, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), looks hella badass as the clawed Chief Mbonga, the animalistic leader of a savage band of warriors, even if his character more-or-less amounts to naught.
In essence, The Legend of Tarzan is another white ‘redeemer’ story, which, let’s face it, feels bit short-sighted in today’s cinematic climate — Black Panther (2018) anyone? Yeah, the historical fiction stuff is pretty fun, and the effects excellent, but literature’s great wild man honestly deserves better. Given the talent both on and off camera, The Legend of Tarzan could’ve really been something special — a chance for filmmakers to subvert expectations, crafting a near-superhero flick that celebrates heroes both imagined and existed. Either way, go kooky or brainy — just don’t go both!
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by S-Littner