It’s been just over a hundred years since “Tarzan of the Apes” was first published. In that time, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation (Sorry, John Carter!) has been adapted, reinterpreted, and parodied countless times in every conceivable medium. Tarzan is so deeply ingrained into our cultural zeitgeist that it doesn’t seem like there’s anything more about him to say.
That said, we live in a time when climate change is an omnipresent issue. This is also a time of international uproar over animal poaching, and social media shitstorms are triggered when a lion gets shot out in Africa or an endangered gorilla gets shot in a zoo. The Jungle Book — another done-to-death classic about a boy raised by animals — was remade only a few months ago. Environmentalism is always an issue, don’t get me wrong, but this particular time somehow feels especially ripe to revisit Tarzan and see if there’s any way he might be made relevant for a modern audience.
This attempt comes to us from David Yates, best known for directing the back half of the Harry Potter film series. He’s also the director bringing us back to the Wizarding World with Fantastic Beasts… in a few months. At first, Yates sounds like an ideal choice for Fantastic Beasts and Tarzan. But if you look at the release dates for both films, you’ll see that Yates was effectively given the Herculean task of directing two high-budget tentpoles at the same time. And in the case of Tarzan, it shows.
(Side note: I was quite surprised to find that many of the film’s characters and events were loosely based on actual people and history from the same time period. But since integrating Tarzan into real-life history is an incredibly stupid move and any resemblance to authenticity would most likely be accidental, we’ll be ignoring that for the purposes of this review.)
We open with some introductory text. In the late 1800s, the European powers carved up Africa between them and the Congo went to Belgium. So Belgium, of all countries, is our villain for the film. Sure, why not?
Anyway, the Belgian monarch took over the Congo, seeking to drain the area of its resources. And he somehow mismanaged the whole venture so badly that Belgium is now effectively broke. So how can a bankrupt country afford to keep on maintaining its stranglehold over such a huge chunk of Africa? Here’s a better question: It’s a Tarzan movie, so who fucking cares?! Why are we wasting so much time on international politics when we could be swinging on vines through a huge forest full of natural CGI-animated wonders?
Alas, the plot keeps unfolding, and we learn that Belgium has placed Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) in charge of salvaging the Belgian colonization of the Congo. Rom’s plan is two-fold. First, he goes to an old African warlord (Chief Mbonga, yet another waste of Djimon Hounsou’s talent), who’s willing to trade some exceedingly valuable diamonds in return for Tarzan’s head. Thus Rom arranges for Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) to return to the Congo. Then he goes and kidnaps Jane (Margot Robbie) for good measure, because of course he does.
Let’s stop to talk about our leading actors so far. Christoph Waltz seems to be sleepwalking through the film, but he can get away with that because the character is yet another retread of Hans Landa. Margot Robbie fares much better as a damsel in distress who actually makes an effort to try and escape her captors, and there are times when she damn near succeeds. Even better, Robbie’s portrayal of Jane is whip-smart, and she gets some of the best dialogue in the whole movie.
As for our leading man, this film opens with Tarzan as John Clayton III, an English nobleman. His exploits as Tarzan are mere backstory, and John himself has left all that behind to reclaim his parents’ heritage and settle down with his wife in London. So instead of starting out as an animal and learning to find his human side, this is a Tarzan who starts out as human and has to rediscover the animal side he’s forgotten.
It’s certainly not a bad angle for a Tarzan story. In fact, it’s a very insightful premise that develops the character in ways that haven’t really been done in the character’s long history. So of course the film screws it up.
First of all, you’d think that because the film takes place so long after John’s exploits as Tarzan, we could skip all the origin story stuff that everybody already knows, right? Well, the filmmakers didn’t seem to agree. As the film unfolds, we see Tarzan’s parents get killed, the gorillas adopting him, the gorillas raising him, the romance arc with Jane, and so on. This is all presented in flashback, as the film will randomly come to a dead halt at random intervals to show us stuff we already know, with absolutely zero impact on the present storyline.
Skarsgard himself has the whole “tall, brooding, and handsome” thing down pat, which makes for a Tarzan who’s suitably imposing in a rugged and wild sort of way. Unfortunately, his performance as John (by which I of course mean Tarzan’s more human aspect) is far too bland and one-note. And considering how much of the plot centers around John learning how to be Tarzan again, that’s kind of a big problem. Additionally, that stoic expression persists through the various action scenes and big reveals, which takes so much wonder and excitement from the movie’s biggest scenes.
Then again, the action scenes as a whole are terribly presented throughout. The editing is a total mess, and nothing lands with any kind of impact. To wit, there’s a scene in which Samuel L. Jackson… Oh, I didn’t mention Samuel L. Jackson is in this movie? Well, he is. And the character is barely worth mentioning because all Jackson has to do is be Samuel L. Jackson.
Anyway, there’s a scene in which Jackson shoots a guy’s ear off. And the guy barely even reacts. To repeat: Jackson takes a pistol, shoots a man’s ear clean off, and there’s no screaming. Barely any blood at all. That is some special kind of incompetence.
The visuals aren’t much better in the rest of the film. From start to finish, every other shot is either a close-up or an extreme close-up. Dolly shots and shaky-cam are used in ways that aggressively draw unnecessary attention to the camera. To say nothing of all the drab colors and iffy CGI that drain all the beauty from the Congo, which is exactly the opposite of what anyone with half a brain would do when telling a story about Tarzan! All of this was painful enough to watch on a 2D big screen. In IMAX 3D? Fuck outta here.
But let’s back up a bit. I mentioned that our villain had two methods for a bankrupt country to keep hold of the Congo. What was the second method? Slavery. Yes, the movie spends a huge amount of screen time on indigenous tribes of black people who dress and act like your 19th-century image of savages. And we also see them getting killed with impunity and transported like so much cattle.
Where do I even start?
Given the nature of the source material, the conflict of man vs. nature was a given thing. Expressing that through the European colonization of Africa is a fine way of going about that. Making the leap from there to the corrupt uber-rich taking advantage of “undeveloped” countries? Questionable, but it might serve to make the story more timely if it’s handled properly. But going from there to slavery and institutionalized racism was a bridge too far. These are serious issues with too much baggage for our escapist adventure fantasy to handle, especially with so much else going on.
Which brings me to my other big problem with this: Leaving aside the baggage, the optics, and the political correctness of how the film treats indigenous Africans, THIS IS FREAKING TARZAN!!! He’s the goddamn king of the jungle! Our main character could summon all the birds, beasts, and insects of Africa to rain down so much pain and terror on any colonizing white people, and Tarzan pretty much does exactly that in the climax. So what the fuck is he doing, messing around with all these human allies when rallying animal support would be far more creative and interesting to watch?
I’m confident that there is room for an exciting reinterpretation of Tarzan that’s relevant to modern audiences and restores a sense of wonder and respect for our planet. The Legend of Tarzan ain’t it. The visuals are utterly incompetent, the acting is uneven, the action is a failure, the story is way too convoluted, the plot is bursting with holes and improbabilities, the completely unnecessary flashbacks drag down the pacing, and the source material’s dated past (specifically with regard to racism) is addressed in all the wrong ways. The whole movie is such a muddled mess that I genuinely can’t tell if the filmmakers were trying too hard or not hard enough. Absolutely not recommended.