Tarzan comes out swinging, but just barely misses.
Tarzan of the Apes, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, first appeared in the pulp magazine All-Story Magazine in 1912. Since then, Tarzan has been the title character of numerous novels, TV series, film adaptations, and more. It’s an old and valuable property, hence the ® symbol noticeably visible on the opening title credit. Now there’s a new Tarzan feature film, not surprisingly called The Legend of Tarzan since at this juncture there’s enough in the Tarzan mythos to argue a “legend” has been well-established. Unfortunately, the new film can’t avoid the blatant traditional racial tropes that were overwhelmingly present in Burroughs’ creation — after all, Tarzan, the hero who frees slaves and shifts the political and cultural course of central Africa towards the greater good, is a white man. Racial issues aside, there are still some emotional and visual pitfalls that the exciting action and stunning vistas can’t make up for. What does work about The Legend of Tarzan, in addition to a better-than-expected script, is a testament to the solid direction of David Yates (who directed the final four Harry Potter films).
The story of The Legend of Tarzan begins a decade after the type of stories we’re used to seeing Tarzan involved with. Instead, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), well-removed from the jungle, is now an aspiring member of high class society in London. He’s going by his Christian name, John Clayton, and he’s married to his love, Jane (Margot Robbie). Of course, the “legend” of Tarzan has already been well established so his celebrity status is highly sought after by multiple political parties to help civilize the Belgian Congo, Tarzan’s former jungle home. A handful of political plot threads aside, which mind you are actually more interesting to hear about in the movie than they are here, Tarzan ends up heading back home to investigate if King Leopold is using slaves to mine in his Congo territory. Meanwhile, a villainous envoy of King Leopold, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), seeks to capture Tarzan and bring him to a tribal leader in exchange for diamonds. See what I mean? More plot than you may have expected, and that’s a good thing because the plot is actually easy to follow and flows nicely.
The problem is that weak emotional arcs and the lack of traditional “Tarzan-isms” (if I may create the term) accentuate the other issues of the film — mainly an overly dramatic but ineffective romance between Tarzan and Jane. Skarsgård isn’t a bad Tarzan. And Robbie is a good, strong-willed Jane, though her take-n0-sh*t personality quickly fades away to make room for a more traditional (and sexist) damsel in distress role. But together, Skarsgård and Robbie’s romance seems like it should be steamy. Maybe it’s the editing, but it never reaches expected heights. In regards to the missing “Tarzan-isms”, we hear the iconic Tarzan yell but never actually see Tarzan deliver it. How disappointing is THAT!? Wouldn’t you want to watch Tarzan swing through the jungle whilst delivering the echoing ‘king of the jungle’ roar?! Yeah, me too. Instead, we get to hear it from a distance. Twice. That’s it. And how about some “Me Tarzan. You Jane”? Okay, sure, the Tarzan character we’re witnessing is a decade removed from his uneducated upbringing, but at least a few campy nods to quotes like that would’ve helped the film’s cause. If you’re going to attempt reintroducing this iconic character to a new generation of viewers, at least showcase what made the character iconic in the first place (again, sans racial tropes please). There are even a plethora of flashbacks, but none of them feature Tarzan dialogue. At least there’s Samuel L. Jackson playing the historical figure George Washington Williams, and he manages to provide some comic relief. Plus, with Jackson on screen, The Legend of Tarzan has the opportunity to contain specific types of action and dialogue reserved specifically for Jackson in any and all of his films (sans f-bomb). Trust me, you’ll know it when you see/hear it.
For the most part, the visuals are exceptional. The CG animals are just a small notch below the incredible animals created in The Jungle Book, but that’s a super high bar to match. There’s one very silly looking vine swinging scene, but there’s a second great looking one that comes too late in the movie. The camera work is good, providing detailed close-ups and stunning panoramic shots, and the music by Rupert Gregson-Williams (brother of Harry) carries the film forward, even in the few scenes that run a little long. My general takeaway, and one that seemed to have been felt by the entire audience, was that The Legend of Tarzan was a surprisingly solid action drama, with a production value that exceeded our expectations, yet it lacked a lasting effect. I’ve already forgotten much of it. The only thing I really recall is “Me Tarzan. You Jane”, but that wasn’t in the movie.
The Legend of Tarzan comes out in theaters Friday, July 1st.