A film review by Craig J. Koban July 8, 2016


2016, PG-13, 109 mins.


Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan  /  Margot Robbie as Jane Porter  /  Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams  /  Christoph Waltz as Captain Leon Rom  /  Djimon Hounsou as Chief Mbonga

Directed by David Yates  /  Written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer


I found myself asking three questions while screening THE LEGEND OF TARZAN :

 1.  Is Tarzan a relevant character anymore? 

2.  Is Tarzan a compelling character worthy of modern day movie consumption? 

3.  Is Tarzan a character that’s horribly antiquated and outdated…perhaps even politically incorrect? 

The short answers to those questions are…no, no, and yes. 

There have been so many different permutations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ iconic turn-of-the-last-century pulp fiction creation over the decades in various media forms that I’ve simply lost count.  He’s as recognizable as, say, Superman in pop culture, not to mention that he has seen he light of day in everything from comic books, radio programs, television, and, yes, movies.  I can certainly understand why a studio would want to capitalize on the character’s instant brand name recognition with yet another feature film to re-introduce him to a new generation of filmgoer, but Tarzan is a somewhat problematic product of a distant bygone era.  Is there a place on the cinema screens of today for a 100-plus-year-old creation whose mythology is deeply rooted in unmistakable and questionable “White Savior” iconography (more on that it a bit)?  There’s a strong argument to be made in the yes category, albeit with some serious modifications to the character.  Alas, the makers of this new age Tarzan film seem either reticent to address such issues…or frankly don’t really know how to tackle them in a meaningful manner. 



THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is not – both refreshingly and somewhat disappointingly – an origin film.  It’s more of an adventure yarn featuring a well-established and known Tarzan in this film’s universe.  The story achingly tries to cement itself in some solemn historical truths of its era in the form of the King of Belgium colonizing the African Congo in the late 1880’s and nearly bankrupting his nation in the process of trying to pillage the region for all of its resources.  The king sends in one of his most ruthless and unscrupulous businessmen in Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to negotiate with an African Warlord (Djimon Hounsou) to secure the country’s vast diamond deposits.  The warlord wants one thing in return from Rom…Tarzan delivered to him, to which Rom eagerly agrees. 

Tarzan, it appears, has all but abandoned his primal jungle ways and now lives the regal life as the third Lord of Greystoke, going by the name of John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard).  Now a highly domesticated gentleman (he even sips his afternoon tea with pinky in the customary upright position), John lives a quiet life with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie), a status that she definitely appreciates, but that all changes when he is called by the British and American governments to serve as a trade emissary to the Congo to stop the Belgium King’s highly sketchy colonization plans.  The American president sends in one of his special diplomats, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), to team up with John in his return to the African wilds in hopes of securing it away from greedy Belgium business imperatives.  Initially, John wants to have none of it all, but when Rom swoops in and kidnaps the love of his life to use her as bait, that’s more than ample reason for John to lose his shirt, return to his vine swinging roots, and save the girl and Africa from tyranny. 

As mentioned, the whole notion of white colonial royalty – who was left for dead as a baby and saved and raised by African apes – returning to a country to rescue its native black denizens from evil is…a bit of a hard pill to swallow from a contemporary prerogative.  Yes, Tarzan was envisioned and created with an early 20th Century mindset, but THE LEGEND OF TARZAN does very little to either subvert or vehemently challenge said ideas.  I think that the writers (one of whom is inexplicably Craig Brewer, the brilliant director of BLACK SNAKE MOAN and HUSTLE AND FLOW) trying to include an African America sidekick for Tarzan is their way of having us overlook such obtrusive thematic headaches, but Williams is, quite frankly, an weirdly anachronistic figure in this film.  Not only is it readily implausible that – considering the racially torn times – that the commander-in-chief would send a diplomat of color overseas, but Jackson also plays the role with such a 21st Century wisecracking drollness that it almost appears that he walked off of a whole other modern age film set and just arbitrarily showed up on this one. 

The noble-minded good will and honorable intentions of Jackson’s casting aside, Tarzan remains a white character of white elitist privilege that has to tame, unite, and save a country populated mostly by black people (one sequence alone has Skarsgard’s Ape Man mopping the floor with multiple adversaries of color, a scene that's more distracting than purely exciting or gripping).  Perhaps the bigger problem with THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is that, ultimately speaking, it doesn’t really know what to do with Tarzan.  It’s not an origin story (although we get brief glimpses of his back-story in flashbacks), so the film essentially reduces the character to a fairly wooden and ill defined action figure that strikes dutiful poses on cue…but that’s about it.  Tarzan here, on an emotional level, is pretty much a bland and black slate.  We learn very little of what lurks beneath that miraculously and impressively sculpted façade of his.

Skarsgard certainly looks the part and is a commanding physical presence in the film, but he lacks charm and charisma here; he lets his physique do most of the talking.  His chemistry with Jane is also mournfully lacking and seems manufactured at best; we never feel that these are two souls with an indescribably loving bond and commitment together…other than the fact that the screenplay tells us that they do.  Robbie seems strangely miscast here, which is regrettable seeing as she’s churned out multiple performances as of late that suggests that she’s a performer of rich range, but her Jane rarely evokes the aura of a bona fide 19th Century woman (that, and for as much as the script thinks it's cleverly mocking damsel in distress troupes by making her snarky and feisty, Jane is still, when it boils right down to it…a damsel in distress).  And then there’s Waltz – one of our greatest living actors – that’s playing yet another one-note, soft spoken, mild mannered, but inevitably hot tempered and lethal villain on pure autopilot.  When Waltz works with brilliant directors and writers (like Quentin Tarantino) he’s pure cinemagic, but when he’s not the men behind the camera rarely bring out the two-time Oscar winner’s A-game. 

That’s not to say that THE LEGEND OF TARZAN doesn't have a competent director at the helm.  The film was directed by David Yates, who knows his way around big budget tentpole franchises (he made the last several HARRY POTTER films), but here he rarely creates a Tarzan universe that feels tactile, credible, and inviting.  The film was mostly shot on London sets, and it painfully shows.  The overabundance of CG work (in creating the jungle animals and settings) ranges from mediocre to passable, with a bit more leaning towards the former (with a budget closing in on $200 million, the film’s money rarely looks like it's on screen and the ape effects hardly look as good as what Peter Jackson dreamt up in KING KONG from 11 years ago, not to mention that nearly every shot of Tarzan swinging through the jungle looks egregiously fake).  THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a weird film.  It takes itself too seriously and forgets to have fun with the material as an old fashioned adventure film, but when it tries to have fun the character’s inherent racial politics emerge to rear their ugly heads.  Granted, this Tarzan outing is more lethargic, dull and lacking in genuine thrills than it is outright offensive.  

When all is said and done, this Tarzan is not relevant nor compelling...and he certainly shows his age.  However, when Skarsgard heroically flexes his unhealthily ripped and rain glistened pecs and abs to much of the adoring affection of female audience members...maybe that all doesn't matter. 


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