Going into The Legend of Tarzan, my sole expectation for the film was that it wouldn’t be actively racist. Not even asking for a film that is sufficiently woke, just manages to be smart enough to avoid some of the colonialist stuff that’s gonna come up in a property like Tarzan that comes from a different era with a different sensibility about a sensitive subject.
It managed to just about pull that off. So…you know…it’s watchable. Unfortunately, the film is stuck with the problem that it doesn’t really do much of anything else when it comes to putting the property out in 2016. I’m a firm believer in the idea that no property is completely lost to time, and just about anything can be reframed, rethought, and put out with a new set of interesting sensibilities.
Unfortunately, The Legend of Tarzan steps on every possible mine on the way to modern relevancy, leaving it dragging to the finish line.
It starts at the problem of fellow Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation John Carter by assuming a lot more modern affection for the character than exists. Warner Brothers might have done well to remember that much of the affection that still exists in modern minds is from the application of the Disney formula to the story, not necessarily the story itself.
But barrelling forth with that misguided assumption mean that our story takes place after the initial “Me Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), you Jane (Margot Robbie)” part and picks up years later when John Clayton (Tarzan’s real name) has retaken his manor as his title as the Lord of Greystoke. The life of English royalty clearly bores Tarzan, but scars from his past keep him in London.
Until he’s given an offer to return to the Congo. You see, the Belgians have taken over (Those of you versed in history may be getting uncomfortable here) and George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a real life emissary from America, suspects they’re using slave labor. An invitation from the Belgian king to Tarzan is their ticket in.
It’s of course, a trap, because Christoph Waltz is in this movie, and he’s playing someone evil with a German name and plans to further take over the Congo. And Tarzan must stop him, stop the tribe out to kill him led by an enemy from his past (Djimon Honsou), and rescue his wife who has been captured by Christoph Waltz.
The aforementioned problem with assumed affection is that in avoiding the intro (because we all know it), this base story is largely unfamiliar to the film’s audience, so there’s gotta be set up. Long, boring, interminable fucking set-up. This film is near unwatchable until the jungle action begins, so inert in its narrative that not even Christoph Waltz can find any scenery to chew on. And that’s impressive.
Actually, let me digress for a second. The film spends most of its runtime assuming it can make a sequel to a Tarzan film that didn’t happen. But apparently someone up top got nervous and spliced back in Tarzan’s birth as well as Tarzan and Jane meeting. It adds nothing and feels like I’m watching the pilot to a Tarzan TV show while I’m watching this damn movie. Stick with it.
Anyway, then the actual story begins and we hit the next mine. When a property is updated, no matter what, there are certain core elements that should be kept. I don’t mean so much narrative elements, those are here. The yell, the vine-swinging, and a few cheeky references to the favorite quotes.
I mean, the core essence shouldn’t be compromised. A modern Tarzan movie should feel like a classic adventure movie. Something rip-roaring and exciting that uses the unique setting and place to make its action sequences feel fresh. It’s that key sense of adventure that should have it going. Big and pulpy. Update the tone and the ideas, but not the essence.
But The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t do that, believing that the best way to update lies in running along the same lines as the other films that have done what it tries to do.
In most respects, that means that Warner Brothers is trying to pull from its last great franchise and make this a superhero film. It pitches Tarzan as something more like Shirtless Jungle Batman (an action figure I’m pretty sure I owned). He attacks from the shadows and through precision brawling with groups of soldiers, only occasionally swinging through the trees and using tools. It makes him brood and turns his jungle sense into superpowers for him to fight the forces of colonialism. For a guy who grew up with total freedom, he doesn’t seem much happy about anything.
Which is a shame, because Skarsgard throws himself so headlong into the role with his physicality. Had there been stronger material, a more enjoyable Tarzan, he might have had a franchise that would have made up for not getting Thor.
The other strange update comes from what can I only describe as the “Caffeine-Free Diet Tarantino” nature of this one. I mentioned earlier that it takes place in the Belgian Congo, and in order to dance around the problems of it, it seems to pitch itself as a revenge narrative not dissimilar to Tarantino’s films Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. Narrativize tragedy and give it heroes and villains to make it so that you can achieve catharsis by actually defeating injustice. Through violence, mostly.
Of course, this film isn’t quite…scratch that, is completely unable to approach what Tarantino does with those narrative. It never had a chance, a blockbuster on this size isn’t going to be able to grapple with the ideas or casting necessities. But not only does Tarantino make it so that the oppressed peoples get a chance to take revenge, but he has a filmmaking skill that’s unmatchable, that gives those films the tonal and narrative control they need to pull off those stories.
David Yates is a fine filmmaker, but he’s simply that, fine. He has a solid enough visual eye (even if he still mostly hasn’t turned the lights back on from Harry Potter), but as a storyteller, he’s a journeyman. Get in and get the job done, and telling the story he’s attempting to take on with The Legend of Tarzan needs a little more care.
What we’re left with is a film that has no purpose. Like, honest question. Why did this film get made? Individuals seem to have purpose. Skarsgard’s throwing his body into Tarzan. Margot Robbie continues to be the most watchable thing about any film she’s in, playing her Jane as a delightfully tough anachronism, even if she’s largely just in chains waiting for rescue. Samuel L. Jackson continues to be a hell of a lot of fun.
There’s nothing connecting it all. No point, no form, no function that makes The Legend of Tarzan really stand out or justify bringing the franchise back to life besides the fact that Warner Brothers is desperate for something, anything to be working for them.
Even once the film pulls out of its nosedive takeoff, it’s left playing with the same damn things that every jungle film has been doing since Gunga Din and not particularly well. Hell, it’s weaker for the comparison. There’s a scene where elephants take on a spiritual reverence, and all I can think of is that The Jungle Book did the exact same thing three months ago with a lot more skill, power, and narrative pay off.
The Legend of Tarzan in a nutshell. Doing the exact same thing something else did, just that the other thing did it way fucking better.