The Legend of Tarzan

The Legend of Tarzan ★★★

The Legend of Tarzan is a film that seemingly nobody was interested in seeing, but one that I have been secretly hyped for since the first trailer came out. Despite the lack of interest and critic support, I found it to be very enjoyable in it’s own right, and a clever adaptation of the 104 year old literary character. It is however rather by the books and hardly the most revolutionary blockbuster of the year, but a fine adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs character and a solidly entertaining film.

King Leopold II of Belgium seeks to expand his empire in the Congo, but is on the verge of bankruptcy. An expedition to secure the diamonds of Opar led by the king's envoy Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is ambushed and massacred, with only Rom surviving. A tribal leader, Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), offers him the diamonds in exchange for the life of Tarzan.

The former Tarzan, John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard) has returned to England as “Lord Greystoke”. Through the British Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent), he is invited by King Leopold to visit Boma and report on the development of the Congo by Belgium. An American envoy, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), urges a reluctant John to go, as he knows that he is Tarzan. Despite John's unwillingness to put her in danger, his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) insists on joining their mission to the Congo. Later that night, John experiences memories of his childhood and adolescence amongst his ape family in the jungle.

John, Jane, and Williams take their trip to the Congo, and stay with a tribe who are friendly to John and Jane. Rom and his mercenaries attack the tribe's camp at night and capture John and Jane, killing the tribe's leader in the process. They then escape with Jane and several of the tribe's members but Williams is able to form a resistance from the tribesmen and save John. With the aid of the tribe's warriors, John and Williams intercept a Belgian military train carrying captured slaves, something that Williams had suspected. They also discover that Rom intends to use the diamonds to pay for a massive army to subjugate the Congo and allow Belgium to mine its wealth.

This is a surprising ensemble of big name actors, and the dedication they show to the material was strong enough to sustain my investment. Skarsgard is perhaps the most authentic and true-to-text iteration of Tarzan we’ve seen in live action so far, nailing the character’s adaptability, subtle animal instincts, and compassion; while it’s not a hugely charismatic performance it does faithfully represent the character. Robbie plays Jane as tough, sarcastic and brave, (and American, as she was in the books), instilling a sense of proactivity in a role typically associated with being captured a lot. As a charismatic counterpoint to Tarzan is Sam Jackson as the avuncular and snarky George Washington Williams, he instills a lot of heart and energy, but a strong degree of subtlety as well. Waltz gives a fairly typical villain performance: he’s calm, menacing, articulate and cold, but at this point his appearance comes off more as perfunctory. Hounsou as Chief Mbonga shows a solid performance despite limited screen time, while Broadbent plays his role very broadly (pun not intended) and is almost cartoonishly effete. The supporting cast of African actors to play the tribesmen are portrayed with dignity, stature and intensity, instilling a sense of honour in the film.

Most of the best character scenes are the ones between Tarzan and Williams, where you feel the chemistry and connection between these two; they’re both world-weary warriors who have seen a lot of rough stuff in the world, seldom fit into their own civilized societies and are adverse to injustice wherever they find it. Tarzan is the most subdued character of the whole cast, especially compared to Robbie and Jackson. The relationship between Tarzan and Jane is fairly understated, but there is tangible warmth between the two actors; not the greatest romance in the world but perhaps one of the better portrayals of their romance on film. Despite being trapped by Rom for the majority of the second and third acts of the film, Jane does succeed in spurring the other tribes into action, which pays off at the end. Most of the time, she saves herself: Jane is frequently put in danger, but as Robbie plays her, she’s just strong enough to carry herself through dangerous situations but not so much that you feel like she’s an invincible superhero.

If there is one big problem for me; it's the inconsistent visual effects. With the apes, it's clear that the production team were hoping to emulate the incredible results of the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, but they seldom come close to that level of quality and look like something out of the mid-2000s. I found that Kala, Tarzan's ape mother, looked the best throughout the film, while Tarzan’s ape brother Akut rarely looked like he was really there. After the impressive Mangani makeup from ‘Greystoke’, it was disappointing to see that the CG Apes did not exceed expectations. The Apes are called Mangani in the film, but they looked like normal gorillas. The rest of the animals such as the lions, elephants and leopards looked decent, and were well animated, but not quite photo-realistic. Unfortunately, the wildebeest stampede that was less than convincing in the trailer is not a whole lot better in the finished movie. While there's something to be said about Animal Rights and restricting the use of animals in film for their welfare, the film suffers for the lack of tangible animals.

While ‘The Jungle Book’ was largely brought to life through top of the line CGI, the Congo is constructed with some excellent jungle sets, villages and well crafted period piece locations and CGI. Alas, the digital jungles rarely look as good as in ‘The Jungle Book’, especially in the scenes where Tarzan is swinging around on vines. It’s odd that there are many digital compositing shots that stand up to scrutiny and some that look really subpar. I will contend that the effects do not make the film unwatchable, but they should have been much stronger.

The cinematography is often very beautiful and luscious, but at times less than impressive. When we’re out on the plains of Africa or are treated to sweeping vistas of the rainforest, through panoramic shots of actual African landscapes, it’s vibrant and full of colour. It is a bit of a fanciful depiction of Africa, with savannahs and jungles being shown close together, but the illusion is still an immersive one. But some of the jungle scenes are drained of colour and vibrancy that it doesn’t do the movie any favours, as the film itself really isn’t that dark with the exception of a few key scenes. At under two hours long and jam packed with story threads, the film feels very quickly paced and I feel as though additional character scenes or allowing some scenes to linger a little longer for emotional impact would have benefitted the film. We get bursts of well-staged action scattered throughout the film until the big climax with the stampede, but a lot of it is filmed at close quarters, especially during the gorilla fight scenes, and most of it lacks the flair that Yates has demonstrated with his Harry Potter movies. When Tarzan literally swings into action, I had a smile on my face as the character’s full abilities were actualized in live action.

The score by Rupert Gregson Williams is kind of a mixed bag; it’s not a bad score by any means, but I find that it isn't as memorable as it should have been. There are plenty of well placed woodwind instrumentations, authentic African singing and percussive beats, and a recurring “main theme” for Tarzan himself. However, most of the time it sounds like it's trying to emulate Hans Zimmer's action movie style, sometimes inserting anachronistic instrumentations during a few action beats. Despite working perfectly well within the film’s confines, this is a case of something that could have been truly great.

The plot is framed against the historical backdrop of slavery, exploitation, and conquest; you have a jungle adventure film with some darker historical aspects thrown in. It feels like several ideas for a Tarzan screenplay meshed into one, while still retaining a sense of cohesion to it. The whole plot is pretty convoluted, truth be told, as the film tries to weave in a lot of political material with the King of Belgium, the slavery angle and the introduction of a real Civil War veteran in Williams, into the mix. As for the dicey subject of race in the film; whenever something potentially uncomfortable rears it's head in the narrative, the film strives to subvert the worries of the audience. The film is never one to be suggesting racism or “white man supremacy” by the default position of having the caucasian Tarzan being the main character. With all the villains being racist and exploitative characters who get killed off in gruesome and inventive ways, it is very clear who not to root for in the film. Simplistic and postmodern? Perhaps, but no one would accept a Tarzan that protects poachers and slavers from beasts and jungle tribesmen.

In terms of humour, Jackson’s charismatic performance was consistent enough that I chuckling and smiling throughout the film thanks to his moments of levity. When the film indulges in the familiar Tarzan tropes, such as swinging on vines, sometimes it can play them for humour when one of the vines collapses from Williams' weight when he reaches for it. Skarsgard has his own impressive take on the iconic Tarzan roar, sounding much better in the cinema than in the trailer. When Jane refuses to scream “like a damsel” to attract Tarzan, making light of the notion of Jane as the archetypal damsel in distress by showing her spitting in Rom’s face. With a character as outlandish as Tarzan, I can understand why many might feel that a lighter approach, less steeped in blood-soaked history and more fun and action orientated might have been more palatable, as there are servings of lightness and humour here and there.

The arc John goes through in order to become Tarzan again reminded me of the arc of Peter Banning in the Spielberg film “Hook”. I see where the filmmakers were coming from, visually and figuratively peeling back the layers of civilization before John embraces his true identity as Lord of the Apes. We see and understand why he feels the way he does at the start of the film, and how he comes to terms with the wrongs he committed as a younger man and fully embraces his old self. At the same time, it still felt like a Tarzan movie with all the African landscapes, dangerous creatures and thrills and spills along the way, so I never felt cheated out of seeing a movie that I knew I was not likely to see.

Despite all the valid and understandable criticisms raised, this is a film that I will say is being, dare I say it, too harshly judged. As an adaptation, it excellently captures the best qualities of the character and his world, while updating and rectifying some of Burroughs’ more troubling aspects from time to time. As a film, it ranks below the excellent Disney Animated film in terms of musical appeal, humour and emotional strength, and is a competent modern day portrayal of Tarzan. The film is bolstered by strong performances from our three main characters, tight action scenes and a lack of pretentiousness. This isn't Weismuller grunting and pidgin-English; this is the pulp hero in all his glory in an old fashioned jungle adventure yarn. I can understand where disappointed reviewers are coming from, but for me, I had my fun.

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