Nearly 100 years ago, the first (silent) Tarzan film opened—Tarzan of the Apes, starring Elmo Lincoln. Since then, the grand story has been reworked for several generations, the most famous series of films coming in the early-to-mid ‘30s, with the definitive Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller.
1984’s awkwardly titled Tarzan: The Legend of Greystoke, Lord of the Apes, brought a lean and mean Tarzan in the person of French actor Christopher Lambert, more time spent at the family mansion of Greystoke, and a fascinating first film performance from model Andie MacDowell (Groundhog Day), whose Southern accent was so troublesome that her dialogue was stripped and replaced by an (then) unknown New York actress named Glenn Close.
The combination of political correctness and genuine sensitivity has conspired to challenge the newer Tarzan films to be relevant while being exciting. So now we have the newest Tarzan offering, The Legend of Tarzan. As a rollicking adventure film, it can be enjoyed on that level. But with the casting of brooding actor Alexander Skarsgard, I had high hopes that this would be a smarter, deeper film. Then the first few minutes give us two quick clichés—fine actor Christophe Waltz (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds) as the too cool, sharp villain, and the fine actor Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator, Blood Diamond, In America) as an important tribal African chief—and my eyes glazed over just a bit.
The film works hard to place the legend into something of an edgy historical context involved the king of Belgium, the colonial raping of the Congo, and the larger issue of slavery. It never quite gels, and never quite informs the central plot with anything but an awkward push into the narrative. It was exciting at first to find John Clayton (Tarzan/Skarsgard) at home in England in his grand manor with beautiful wife Jane (Margot Robbie, who appears to be able to do anything in terms of acting). But we find him restless, eager to escape the jungle of English society and get back to his African home.
He’s obviously got to get to Africa, which the film manages to do rather quickly after that bumpy beginning. Once there, however, the film is all over the place. There is a plot, of course, but the film ends up (spoiler alert) as another damsel-in-distress film, even while paying some lip service to secondary, minor issues such as national bankruptcy, colonial pillaging, inter-tribal warfare, and the slave market. To be sure, Robbie is hardly the typical weak damsel, but she still has to be rescued by the big guy.
And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, who simultaneously injects the film with a shoe-horned black presence that is supposed to be meaningful in some way, gives the film its biggest kick, and is wildly, wildly anachronistic in dialogue and tone. I lost track of how many modern quips he made that were, say, 120 years out of their time. While Skarsgard can capture the timeframe of 1890 with ease, and Robbie and Waltz are generic enough in their performances not to stick out, Jackson and his modern presence turn this film into something else–funny and wonderful on some level, but strange at the same time. It’s akin to having Bill Murray show up in a Jane Austen film.
Warning: If you’re as sick of CGI as many others are at the moment, skip this one. Phony ships on phony water, phony jungles, phony apes (so many phony apes!) and phony ostriches in phony races. There are some stunning real vistas, but far too much of the action is captured in that vague, dusky look that is modern CGI.
Skarsgard is a longer, leaner Tarzan than we normally expect, and his moodiness brings a fresh touch. But there’s too much introspection, too much moodiness. His passions are more hidden than they need to be. His connection with Jane, too, is underplayed, and a few of their scenes look cut down from another, more romantic film.
Lastly, there is a daring use of flashback that is praiseworthy in its lack of explanation; we just have to realize, that, oh, here is a flashback that explains…something. It’s a bold move, but doesn’t quite come off as the film keeps going back to his past in the jungle. Perhaps they are trying to cover too much territory and all the jumps back in time don’t quite come together as a whole. Or perhaps, the flashbacks simply pose another rhythm problem for a film already struggling in that department.
Being the newest iteration of the Tarzan myth, the film can be dumb fun. All the boxes are ticked—romance, comeuppance, some significant historical drama (but not too much), and some anachronistic comedy. Set your expectometer down, and you may well have a good time.