The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

It is no new or particularly insightful observation to say that originality is especially lacking in Hollywood studios these days.  Cineplexes are populated by sequels, reboots, remakes, and shared cinematic universes.  What has felt like a growing trend in recent years (although maybe it began with Spielberg’s Hook in 1991, actually) is the attempts by studios to eschew an outright remake in favor of telling a new chapter or story in the life on an already existing, well-established intellectual property.  2010’s Alice in Wonderland comes immediately to mind, as do the Planet of the Apes prequels, Pan, and a few others. With this in mind,  The Legend of Tarzan is the latest attempt by Warner Bros. to develop a bona fide summer blockbuster, something it has really lacked since the end of the Harry Potter series.  Oddly enough, The Legend of Tarzan is directed by David Yates, the director of the final four Harry Potter films.

The film takes place several years after the generally known events of the Tarzan story of being king of the jungle, finding Jane, falling in love, and becoming civilized.  Here, Tarzan, real name John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard), is living at Greystoke in England, married to Jane (Margot Robbie) and living a quiet life managing his family’s estate and business.  He is approached by the British Prime Minister on returning to Africa on behalf of King Leopold of Belgium to see the development in the region that Leopold has conducted.  Unbeknownst to the Prime Minister and the group of envoys, it is a trap devised by Leopold’s close confidant Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who is hoping to capture Lord Greystoke and hand him over to Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) who wants revenge against Tarzan.  Amongst the group of envoys is an American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a businessman and Civil War veteran who suspects that Leopold is engaging in slavery to accomplish his work in the Congo.  When they arrive in Africa, Rom’s plans to capture Tarzan are thwarted, and instead takes Jane to lure Tarzan to him, as Tarzan and Williams must journey through the jungles that Tarzan used to call home to rescue the woman he loves.

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Tarzan is a character who has a long history stretching across books, television, film, and even radio.  He is also a character that is firmly rooted in the time and place of his origins, written originally by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912 about tales set in Africa in the 1800s.  A century later, much of the foundational elements of that story are less palatable to 21st century mindsets and sensibilities.  Tarzan’s story is of a white, British man in an African world where the predominant race is reduced to role players and background noise on their own continent.  Whether it is fair to view a century old story though a modern lens or not, the makers of this film felt the need to include Samuel L. Jackson’s Williams, a real person who exposed the terrible conditions of people in the Congo under King Leopold to the world.  This blending of real-life narrative with fiction is not particularly effective and does little to help the story other than have a person of the same color as the majority of the native people in the film act as Tarzan’s sidekick struggling to keep pace with him for most of the film.  He occasionally provides comic relief as well.  It does nothing to really alter the (real or perceived) problem of a white champion defending the African continent from white imperialists.

These imperialists, led by Waltz’s Rom, are straight out of central casting for generic imperialist henchmen school.  They sneer, they mock, and do everything dastardly short of uttering racial epithets to make it absolutely clear who the villains are.  Waltz, sadly, is portraying another villain that is just not worthy of his considerable talent.  Rom is supposed to be a quiet, reserved character who knows more and is capable of more than he lets on, allowing people to underestimate him and giving himself the upper hand almost every time.  This is depicted by a rosary that he constantly carries with him that also doubles as a weapon.  Unfortunately, once they’ve shown the use of it early on in the film, it earmarks that it will definitely come into play in the climax of the film when Tarzan comes face to face with him.  And overall, while Waltz plays Rom as a reserved, it comes across as generic and lacking.  And most of what he is given to do is tantamount to moustache twirling while Jane is his captive.

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Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie are the two prominent performers here as Tarzan and Jane.  The love between Tarzan and Jane is probably one of the most universally known romances in all of fiction worldwide.  There is a certain level of passion, desire, and chemistry between the two that has to be there, and at times there is.  What ends up happening is that when they are together they are deeply romantic and passionate toward one another in a slightly chaste 1880’s British sort of way, but it also feels like the story assumes that some of their relationship is baked into the story already.  Flashbacks to their jungle meet-cute do little to make the chemistry really work, despite their best efforts.

Yates is a director who has gone from directing TV movies to being handed the keys to Harry Potter and big budget films almost overnight with no buildup to speak of.  Warne Bros. has shown an extraordinary amount of confidence and satisfaction with his work, though I wonder if that was because he didn’t have the cache of other established directors and would be more inclined to go along with studio suggestions and be more attuned to the studios vision of those films rather than being a director who has his own singular vision.  As this is his first non-Harry Potter feature, the one thing that stood out to me about the film was how completely uninteresting it was.  Also, the way they re-imagine Tarzan’s bellow as he swings through the jungle made me giggle at how silly it was.  Finally, the climax of the film features a massive tapestry of animals that it strains credulity.

I think Tarzan is a character who has always been difficult to effectively adapt to live-action films.  Despite the technology to effectively bring to life anything written on the page or imagined in animation, The Legend of Tarzan fails to achieve its goal of modernizing Tarzan and telling a new tale with a familiar character.  It is surprisingly boring and uninteresting for a character that is so rooted in adventure.  There is little to distinguish it from the pack as anything more than a generic summer blockbuster that fails to bring much of anything of substance to the table.

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Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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