Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan
Tarzan came roaring his way into the public consciousness in 1912 from the mind of author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan has been the star of numerous novels, comic books, TV series, cartoons, and movies. In the Lord of the Apes’s latest film, director David Yates makes a noble effort to present this over 100 year old character to a modern audience while preserving the heart of the character and the essence of the source material.
Tarzan is a character that I have a great respect and admiration for. Personally, I think he is one of the greatest characters in 20th century American fiction. Does The Legend of Tarzan in fact live up to the legend? Well, I don’t think anyone is going to call this film legendary, but it does entertain and brings Tarzan back to his roots while simultaneously packaging him with modern sensibilities. The plot is a bit thin, but the characters shine.
Let’s consider Tarzan himself. Alexander Skarsgard of True Blood fame captures the physicality of Tarzan quite well. He is equally believable whether he is swinging through the African jungle as Tarzan or walking the streets of London as John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke. When you look at the others actors in the film, Skarsgard’s performance is likely to be overlooked as being anything special, but he’s playing the character he’s supposed to play. Tarzan has a quiet nobility. He’s not an overly verbose character in the first place. Skarsgard blends well the savagery of Tarzan with the trappings of civilization that he has learned since leaving the jungle. Much of a good Tarzan performance hinges on his expressions and body movements. Skarsgard does all of these things well. Based on my viewing experience in the theater, I would say he nailed the sex appeal aspect of the character as well. I heard more than a few utterances of approval of his physique by some of the more vocal ladies in my theater’s audience.
One thing that The Legend of Tarzan did is that it moved beyond the character’s origin story to an older and more cultured Tarzan who has a respectable vocabulary. This is a Tarzan who has left the jungle, taken up his birthright as an English nobleman, and married Jane Porter. The classic tale of Tarzan being born and raised in the jungle that has been the focus of other films like 1984’s Greystoke starring Christopher Lambert or even Disney’s animated Tarzan was only shown in brief flashbacks. Some might be critical of this film glossing over such an integral part of the Tarzan legend, but I for one thought it was a bold move. How many times do we need to see Peter Parker get bit by a spider? How many more times do we need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents shot down? Tarzan’s origin is pretty well ingrained in pop culture after a hundred plus years. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote over 25 Tarzan novels. I think it’s time we moved past the first one (even though it’s arguably the best one).
If any performance stood out for me, it would have to be Margot Robbie as Jane. Robbie gave us a Jane who was no stereotypical damsel in distress, and she had fantastic onscreen chemistry with Skarsgard. With this film we didn’t have to sit through the budding romance of “me Tarzan, you Jane,” but instead we got a mature relationship between a husband and wife who are still deeply in love and devoted to one another. Robbie also gave us something that we haven’t seen in other Tarzan films: Jane was an AMERICAN. Finally! For those that don’t know, Jane was an American woman in the original Burroughs Tarzan novels. For whatever reasons, other renditions of the character have chosen to make her English. I believe that an American Jane allows her to identify more strongly with Tarzan. In a way they are both outsiders to this world of British high society that Tarzan was born to and that she has married into. Robbie will star later this summer as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad. Something tells me that her career is about to blow up in a big way. The Legend of Tarzan was fortunate to get her at this stage in her career.
Samuel L. Jackson’s supporting role as George Washington Williams was definitely one of the highlights of the film. Jackson of course brings the weight of his celebrity as well as providing the levity and wit long associated with Samuel L. Jackson. Tarzan is a rather serious guy most of the time, so a big personality like Jackson was needed, but I think that Jackson’s presence in the movie was more important than just his providing comic relief to Tarzan’s straight man.
Let’s face it. Tarzan was a product of its time. Tarzan means “white skin” in the fictional language of Tarzan’s ape tribe. There’s no getting around the fact that Tarzan looked a little different from the vast majority of humans that the apes had encountered. Tarzan was also set during the time of white colonialism as countries sought to exploit Africa for any number of resources including slave labor.
Some may find the plot of The Legend of Tarzan less interesting than the usual rumble in the jungle among the apes and other animals that Tarzan is best known for. This film chose not to shy away from the more controversial themes of race and exploitation that is a historical part of Africa’s contact with western civilization.
The thing is that Tarzan is not like those colonialists. For all his “primitive savagery,” he is in many ways more enlightened than the so-called “civilized” world. Although Jackson’s character is of African descent, his presence in the film highlights that Tarzan is actually more “African” than he is. Jackson’s character is an American through and through. He’s an educated doctor, a Civil War veteran, and was a participant in the United States’s Indian Wars. His character is even named George Washington Williams. He doesn’t get more American. Instead, it is Tarzan who was born and raised in Africa. Tarzan knows the people, the languages, and the culture while Williams does not. The friendship between Tarzan and Williams sends a very modern message about judging people based on something as superficial as skin color.
Probably the weakest character in the film for me is Christoph Waltz as Leon Rom. Rom’s typical European colonial seeking to exploit Africa for its resources (including its natives), serves as the film’s antagonist, and while he’s adequate, he’s nothing special. Rom is the kind of character that we’ve grown to expect Waltz to play after his turn as a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds and James Bond’s nemesis in Spectre. It was just another day at the office for Waltz.
Of course when dealing with Tarzan, I would be remiss not to bring up the apes and other wild animals that inhabit Tarzan’s world. In the modern age of movies that means mentioning c.g.i. Movie audiences seem to have a love/hate affair with c.g.i. lately. Nothing ever seems to please us. We’re seeing a lot of throwback to the practical effects of yesteryear. I imagine some will find issue with some of the c.g.i. and special effects found in The Legend of Tarzan. Is it too much? Maybe. Is it flawless? Of course not. Even the best c.g.i. still looks like c.g.i. You know what you’re seeing. But what can you do? Movies cost money. The Legend of Tarzan is already at 180 million. For the kind of perfection that audiences seem to want, the film’s price tag would only go up. It’s already questionable as to whether or not this movie can turn a decent profit. If you push the price tag up even more in order to please those that pick at the nuances of every effect, we may never see another Tarzan film again for a long time.
And while I’m on the subject of c.g.i., let me get back to the c.g.i. apes in this film. It has long been a criticism of Tarzan that real gorillas in the wild don’t actually act like the gorillas in Tarzan. That’s because those aren’t gorillas! Edgar Rice Burroughs thought of this over a hundred years ago. Burroughs created a fictional species of ape called the Mangani. This film takes the time to make that clear. These are not traditional real world gorillas. They’re something different.
While this film could have had a stronger plot, a better bad guy, a bit sleeker effects, and the brutality factor turned up just a hair, it is still an entertaining film with enjoyable characters. When I was a kid, this is the kind of movie I would have been begging my parents to take me to see rather than Finding Dory or The Secret Life of Pets. Could a better Tarzan movie have been made? Probably so, but I would rather have this African diamond in the rough, flaws and all, than nothing at all. I for one had a chest thumping good time at the movies with The Legend of Tarzan. Here’s hoping for a sequel.
I rate it a 7 out of 10.