The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Tarzan

“Human. Nature.”

Directed by David Yates
Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou and Christoph Waltz

In order to gain access to the diamond mines of Opar and save his King from bankruptcy, ruthless Belgian civil servant Leon Rom (Waltz) promises to deliver the title card to Mbonga (Hounsou), chief of the Leopard Men. Rom arranges for the Earl of Greystoke and former Tarzan (Skarsgard) to be invited to visit the Congo. Greystoke is all ‘whatevs’, but US attache George Washington Williams (Jackson) persuades him to go in order to root out Belgium’s double-secret slave trade, and his wife Jane (Robbie) insists on coming along to visit old friends.

Interleaved with flashbacks of Tarzan’s origin story, they dodge the Belgian welcome wagon and rock up at their old village, where they are welcomed as family. Then the Belgians show up, there’s burning and capturing and Williams and Tarzan set out to rescue Jane, who is feisty as hell, but sadly not all that. They chase Rom literally from one end of the Congo to the other and back, before Tarzan rallies the tribes and lions and Mangani apes of the Congo, gets all Scar on the Port of Boma, snaps Rom’s indestructible spider silk garroting rosary with his neck muscles, and feeds Rom to horny crocodiles.

And Williams exposes the Belgian slave trade to the British PM (Jim Broadbent as a dotty old Marquis of Salisbury) and there was harmony in the Congo forever more.

Um…

What’s wrong with it?

"Colonialism is bad, m'kay kids."
“Colonialism is bad, m’kay kids.”

A white man and an American tell Africa that Colonialism is bad.

A lot of the action scenes are kind of hard to follow.

I’m just going to throw it out there that Leon Rom – who, fair cop, put heads on his fence – and George Washington Williams were real people, one of whom died thirty five years after the action of this film is dated by the other’s open letter to the King of Belgium.

The plot is largely a series of set pieces, poorly strung together. At one point, Jane escapes from the baddies’ river boat into the jungle, immediately running into Mangani territory within earshot of Tarzan, who was explicitly cutting wide of the river’s course, and is then recaptured by the Belgians en route to their destination. Tarzan chases them to the Opar territory, and the Belgians go straight through and meet their boat again.

A vast coalition of Congolese tribes turns out to help battle the Belgians and their mercenaries… but we only see them after the battle. Most of them don’t actually do anything.

So that is what we’re going for as a running gag/bromance bonding moment? Yay?

What’s right with it?

One's a gun slinging diplomatic envoy with a dark history in the Indian wars; the other's a vine-swinging, superhuman ape-by-adoption who can mimic any animal. They fight colonialism.
One’s a gun-slinging diplomatic envoy with a dark history in the Indian wars; the other’s a vine-swinging, superhuman ape-by-adoption who can mimic any animal. They fight colonialism.

Cristoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson are always worth the price of admission, and the other actors are all pretty good. Casper Crump is definitely a better trigger happy mercenary than immortal caveman Egyptian priest.

When they’re not a mess of fast editing, the action scenes are pretty sweet, with the final wildebeest rush and the train heist notable successes.

The Tarzan cry is pretty badass.

Oddly for a big budget blockbuster, the details are often better than the big picture. Rom’s characterisation is slight, but his motivation believable, and his beef against the blue-blooded John Clayton contrasted with Jane’s assertion that ‘no one started with less’ than Tarzan. Skarsgard is a decent Tarzan, but really shines as the uncomfortable Greystoke, with his (I think CG) stunted hands, shaped by an infancy spent walking on his knuckles.

The apes don’t talk; or rather, don’t have voice overs. I think that’s a huge plus.

How bad is it really?

"I see you've managed to lose your shirt again."
“I see you’ve managed to lose your shirt again.”

The Legend of Tarzan is a weird beastie. On the one hand, you’ve got Tarzan, nigh superhuman lord of the jungle and white, Anglo-Scandinavian ‘favourite son of Africa’. On the other, the very real conflict between the very real Leon Rom and George Washington Williams. And when I say real conflict, I mean they were on opposite sides of an ideological struggle, rather than actually shooting at one another with maxim guns and one of them dying thirty five years early and yet somehow about the right age, and torn apart by randy crocs instead of at home in Belgium. It’s a strange and not entirely successful mix, sometimes uncomfortably blending the real history of Congolese civil rights abuses with super apes and the ultimate white saviour.

This might matter less if the film was better, but a few good set-pieces aside, it’s just not very involving. By having Tarzan and Jane return to the Africa they know, the clash of culture is watered down, and in many ways the film would have done better to really focus on Williams as the outsider for its viewpoint.

Best bit (if such there is)?

Easily the final battle, with Tarzan driving the Belgians into the harbour on a wave of wildebeest.

What’s up with…?

Jane and Tarzan, sitting in a tree...
Jane and Tarzan, sitting in a tree…
  • Failure of style? My name is John Clayton III, Earl of Greystoke. NO IT ISN’T! Your name is John, Earl of Greystoke, or Lord Greystoke for familiar. Jane should be Lady Greystoke as well, but that’s not so bad as at no point is she trying to make a formal point.
  • Tarzan’s indestructible throat?
  • Tarzan wooing Jane with hot, hot animal mating calls.

Ratings

Production values – The film looks good overall, but it suffers from choppy, hard-to-follow action editing. 10
Dialogue and performances – The actors are all very good, but the script is uninspiring and the characterisation somewhat one-note. It’s like the director is standing there going ‘no, Christoph; less emotion. Keep it reptilian.’ 12
Plot and execution – The film is basically a prologue, a chase, a letter and a birth. 13
Randomness – Aside from the slightly erratic geography, the film is pretty straightforward. 2
Waste of potential – So, it was always going to be tough to do something modern with a property like Tarzan. The Legend of Tarzan tries hard, but perhaps too hard, and just manages a different sort of white saviourness. 14

Overall 51%

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