The creators of Tarzan were faced with a very difficult task – taking a much beloved an old classic, and updating it from a children’s movie to a gritty blockbuster. They managed. Barely.
Tarzan is not the first jungle hero to be featured on cinema screens this year, being released just a few months after the Jungle Book. The Legend of Tarzan is also not the first movie to feature Tarzan. Although most people will probably only remember the Disney movie, the last time Tarzan was in cinemas was just three years ago. In fact, if you search for Tarzan movies on IMDB, you will find 200 movies since the book, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was published in 1914. That’s two movies a year on average. Clearly, Tarzan is a much beloved figure. But it’s also obvious that most of these movies don’t make it big. Most seem to be forgotten faster than they’re made. Can The Legend of Tarzan be any different?
The short answer is: Probably not. Not in the long run anyway. But that might not really matter. It certainly doesn’t feel like the producers of this movie wanted to reinvent Tarzan and make their film the ultimate depiction of the King of the Jungle. If anything, they seem to have taken great care to stick close to the original story. Closer than the Disney movie for sure. Just like in the original material, this Tarzan is well mannered and speaks perfect English, as befits the Viscount Greystoke, while still being the King of the Jungle.
The New Old Tarzan
That does not mean, however, that the new Tarzan is just a retelling of the old material. This isn’t the story of how Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) fell in love with Jane (Margot Robbie), and I’m glad it isn’t, I’ve seen that one almost as often as I’ve seen Bruce Wayne’s parents getting shot, leading to him turning into Batman. This is an adventure set a while after Tarzan leaves the jungle with Jane to head to England. So it’s really the return of Tarzan to the jungle. This immediately gives the movie a bit of a sequel vibe, which was rather worrying for the first 15 minutes of the movie, until it became clear that the producers managed to avoid making a shitty sequel without even making a movie first.
Instead, they managed to make it into more of an Tarzan adventure story, with a few flashbacks to the origins of the titular hero thrown in for good measure. Tarzan, now known as John Clayton, is happily living his life in England, when he gets invited by the Belgian King to come back to the Congo to do a little publicity tour. He refuses initially, but is convinced by the American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who believes that King Leopold may be enslaving the local population and wants to find proof of the atrocities being committed. However, he’s not aware that the trip is really just an elaborate set up by King Leopold’s right hand man, Leon Rom(Christopher Waltz), who’s got his own selfish reasons for wanting John Clayton back in Africa.
The actors assembled are relatively unknown, apart from Christoph Waltz, who get to play the villain, as usual, and excels at it, as usual. Alexander Skarsgård makes for an incredibly convincing Tarzan, whether it’s playing the English gentleman, or while wrestling apes. But my two favourite characters are Jane Clayton, played by Margot Robbie, and Osy Ikhile as Kwete. While neither really got to do all that much in the movie, I would like to see more of them. Especially Jane I believe could do a lot more than just play bait for John.
Talking to Ostriches
This movie is grittier and somehow more realistic than want I would have expected from a Tarzan movie, and sometimes finding the balance between the legendary Tarzan who speaks to animals and this grittier version seems rather uneasy. But over the course of the movie is becomes clear that this more grown up and nuanced version of Tarzan works far better than a happy go lucky hippy Tarzan could ever have. This is most obvious in the interactions between humans and animals. There’s no cuddling with everything even slightly furry in sight. Animals are left to behave in the ways you would expect an ostrich or lion to behave. So while it’s clear that Tarzan still shares a special bond with most animals that happen to walk on screen over the course of the movie, this bond isn’t based on some strange animal magic, that forgets just how vicious apes can be. It’s based on respect and an understanding of behavioural traits. It’s best summed up when John Clayton is asked if he can actually talk to animals, and he leaves the question unanswered.
There’s no questioning that the movie does have some problems, for example some vines that do not seem to follow the laws of physics at all. The plot is entertaining, but not very deep. It may touch subjects such as slavery, but it never comes close to really discussing them. In some ways this is refreshing, but at times the ignoring of rather obvious big topics can seem lazy. Nonetheless, The Legend of Tarzan is a good movie for a rainy Sunday afternoon, when all you want to do is watch Tarzan swinging along some vines.
Note that this is one of those trailers that shows just a bit too much of the movie, so you may be better off not watching it if you’re set on seeing the movie.