The Legend Of Tarzan
US (2016) Dir. David Yates
So, 98 years after Elmo Lincoln first donned the famous loin cloth to play Edgar Rice-Burroughs’ legendry creation, Hollywood unleashes it’s long awaited, long gestating modern entry into the Tarzan canon. Can British director David Yates (helmer of the last four Harry Potter films) do the legacy justice?
The film opens with Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) leading his group into the jungle in search of the fabled diamonds of Opar, at the behest of King Leopold II of Belgium, whose country is facing bankruptcy. Tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) will give Rom the diamonds but only if he fulfils a task for him.
Meanwhile in London, John Clayton III aka Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård) is requested by King Leopold via the British government to visit the Congo to report on the Belgium development in Boma. Clayton refuses but is eventually persuaded by American envoy, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who believes the Belgians are enslaving the Congolese. Together with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and Williams, Clayton returns to Africa for the first time in many years.
For the third time, Burroughs’s novel Tarzan And The Jewels Of Opar provides the basic DNA of a big screen adventure (following 1921’s The Adventures Of Tarzan and 1929’s Tarzan The Tiger), but as you might expect from modern Hollywood, it is buried beneath plenty of razzmatazz and liberty taking new ideas.
The general narrative is part new adventure, part origin story for any new comers unfamiliar with the Tarzan legend, the latter interjected as flashbacks when needed to justify a particular plot development. For example, when Tarzan returns to the heart of the jungle and faces an old adversary in giant ape Akut, we are treated to a brief history lesson to explain this personal beef.
With these handy retrospective clips used infrequently, they suffer from breaking the mood and tension created by the current period situation, exposing the problem of this not being a full on origin tale, which has already been done to death anyway. By trying to serve two masters – newbies and the devoted – it is arguable that neither side feels the overall benefit of this approach, a veritable “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma.
I must confess to dozing off during the unnecessarily dull first hour but the plot is conventional enough to rejoin the story up without issue. Having failed to capture Tarzan, Rom kidnaps Jane and takes her to where Mbonga is waiting, along with members of a tribe familiar to Tarzan. Upsetting Tarzan is one thing, upsetting a tribe of angry warriors is another as Rom soon discovers.
As conventional as the plot is, writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer have overloaded it with many subplots and additional elements to the point of bursting, many of which have the potential to be main storylines in their own right. The slavery issue seems to come and go while the grudge of Mbonga essentially bookends the main portion of the film.
Similarly, the character of George ends up being Tarzan’s wisecracking sidekick, handy with a rifle as he is with a pithy one-liner, a far cry from someone with the political clout he seems to possess at the start of the film. A non-canon creation, this is prime Samuel L. Jackson, acting as the cipher for the audience, saying what they are all thinking whilst feeding Tarzan the right questions to allow him to illustrate his jungle prowess.
For this writer, Alexander Skarsgård is one of the weaker Tarzan’s. The idea is to make him at odds with his civilised life as a jungle raised human, which is reversed once he returns to the Congo, having to apply civilised humanity to jungle law. This delineation comes across in the writing but Skarsgård doesn’t have the screen presence or acting chops to physically express this – looking either confused or stoned for the most part.
Jane is also a curiosity in that while her feisty and independent nature is intact, the bite and verve of her self-reliant attitude is way too modern for the late 19th century. She may use some guile and little physical exertion every now and then, but when the chips are truly down, she is ultimately the damsel in distress. Despite Margot Robbie’s whiny accent she puts in a solid turn and has come a long way since Neighbours.
But who is the real villain of the film? King Leopold II for his greed, duplicity and oppression of the native Africans? Mbonga for his bloodthirsty vendetta instigating much of this fiasco? Or Rom for having such low scruples to accept such venal missions for the right price? The nominal choice is Rom because of Christoph Waltz, who seems to have conflated elements of his previous villain roles for this characterisation but is enjoyable nonetheless.
With a budget of $180 million behind it, the film looks exceptional from a cinematic point of view, with some superb photography to behold, but it is not without its niggles. There are some inconsistencies with light sources which are annoying and unforgiveable for a huge, professional production, along with the odd green screen composition lacking the necessary smoothness.
The CGI beasts are mostly impressive, the apes in particular are on a par with the recent Planet Of The Apes reboots, but the now legendary vine swinging sequences are far too acrobatic for a contained setting like a jungle; the exhilarating aerial journeys may work for Spider-Man but not here. Similarly, the fights are way too chaotic and frenetic, when they’re not being slowed down for added dramatic effect.
Like many modern blockbusters, The Legend Of Tarzan is a victim of excess, as it tries to compete with the effects laden fantasies of sci-fi/comic book outings. Instead of trying to pull off Lord Of The Rings meets Avengers Assemble, paring back the sizzle and giving us more steak would have served this film and the Tarzan legacy much better.
Rating – ***
Man In Black