Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Christoph Waltz
Director: David Yates
Writers: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer
Before we had Batman, Superman or the Avengers, there was Tarzan. In this day and age where superheroes command the box office, it makes sense that Hollywood would want to revive and capitalise on one of the original superheroes. It is however rather telling that the figure they chose is a white man who rises as a hero and saviour for the people of Africa. Since race is one of the hottest topics in the world right now, a movie based on a story that reflects 19th century values of white supremacy seems at the very least ill advised. The film does acknowledge some of the dated aspects of this concept but is less than successful in its attempt to rise above them. The larger debate that needs to be held is one that I am not nearly qualified enough to engage in but, due to the prominent role these concerns play in the movie, it is an issue that needed to be acknowledged. Putting the politics and racial issues aside, The Legend of Tarzan is a sometimes exciting but otherwise drab movie.
The film is set in the late 19th century and opens in the Belgian Congo where Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a ruthless captain, has been sent by King Leopold II of Austria to search for diamonds. There he meets the tribal leader Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and strikes a bargain with him. The bargain concerns Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) who currently lives in London as Lord Greystoke with his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). Although the Tarzan myth is a popular one in England, it is one that Greystoke is determined to leave in the past. Therefore, when he receives an invitation from the Prime Minister and King Leopold to visit Boma and assess the progress of the Congo’s development, it is an offer he is inclined to refuse. His mind is changed by the American entrepreneur George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) after he shares his suspicion that the Belgians are engaged in an illegal slave trade. Greystoke thus returns to his home with Jane and Williams to investigate these claims and there finds that he must become Tarzan once again to save the Congolese people.
The reason I’m more inclined to view and judge this movie through a political and racial lens rather than, say, Disney’s Tarzan is because this film brings it upon itself. The story tackles such historically provocative subjects as African colonisation and slavery and presents a revisionist version of events that allows the Brits and Americans to come across as the goodies. One way it does this is through the inclusion of George Washington Williams, a real life veteran of the civil war and writer of African-American history. The film hopes that it can escape the racist and imperialistic connotations of the Tarzan mythos by having a black character around to assure the audience that everything happening on screen is just fine and to remind us that the Belgians are the real baddies. Maybe the movie’s heart was in the right place but it just doesn’t work. When the film features such images as the jubilantly white Tarzan and Jane being hailed and celebrated by the black natives, it’s difficult to resist the urge to groan or to roll your eyes.
A 21st century movie based on Tarzan was always going to be problematic and working around the undertones of the original story was never going to be easy. The Legend of Tarzan however falls flat just as a movie in general. There are some good elements like the flashbacks revealing Tarzan’s origin which work well in their lucidity and restraint. Tarzan himself however is about as bland as a protagonist can get. The physique Skarsgård achieved for the role is certainly impressive but it shouldn’t have been the most interesting thing about him. Waltz meanwhile is called upon once again to portray yet another watered-down version of Hans Landa. Robbie does well as the spirited and capable Jane, which is a change from the damsel in distress she is usually portrayed as if a little bit idealistic for a movie set in the 19th century. The movie could’ve used a lot more of the life that she gave to her role.
The fatal weakness of The Legend of Tarzan is that it is dull, dull, dull. While the action is well executed, it isn’t until the final third that we get to see any of it. The visuals are flat and uninspired, which comes as a great disappointment after the example set by The Jungle Book. The story is tedious and typical of Hollywood in its obvious and simplistic way. If the movie had been more exciting and fulfilling to watch, perhaps its backwards and misguided subtext might have been a little more tolerable. Even then, Disney proved that it is possible to take the story of Tarzan and turn it into a fun, exciting and innocent adventure. The Legend of Tarzan in contrast is a misguided movie with a white saviour story that it is constantly trying to excuse to the point that it gets uncomfortable to watch. When people say that Hollywood is out of touch, this is the kind of thing they’re talking about.