It’s always mystifying how a director, who’s done superb work in bringing to life beloved literary characters, can make such a mess of a similar task. Director David Yates received high praise for managing the last four Harry Potter films. And so, when he was tasked with doing the same for the comic legend, Tarzan – the man raised by apes – expectations were high. These were not met by a long shot.
The Legend of Tarzan begins with a Belgian explorer and envoy of the king, Leon Rom (Christophe Waltz), making a deal with a Congolese tribe leader, to deliver the ‘King of the Jungle’, Tarzan, in exchange for diamonds. Cut to the hero seated in a boardroom in London, having left the jungle behind and acclimatised to city life as Lord John Greystoke III (Alexander Skarsgård). The British government asks him to return to his original home in the Congo, and gather information about rumours that Belgium’s King Leopold, the cruel coloniser of that country, is broke and is about to default on his debts. John refuses. But when an American activist, the real-life George Washington (Samuel L. Jackson), approaches him with allegations that Leopold is enslaving people for unknown nefarious purposes, John reluctantly agrees to go back. His wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), insists on coming along and off they go.
Back in the Congo, John is accepted with open arms by the local tribe. It’s not long before they’re attacked Rom’s troops, who kill the tribal chief. It turns out (dun dun duuuun), Rom has orchestrated John’s return so the former can get his greedy paws on the diamonds. John is briefly captured but saved by George. However, Rom kidnaps Jane, knowing John will come after her. Now John has to become Tarzan again, and use his jungle skills to save Jane, the enslaved Congolese people, and prevent a war. In between, John reunites with some of his gorilla family, which includes an action-packed fight between him and his ‘brother’.
Skarsgård, who really is a good actor (giving noteworthy performances in The East, Disconnect and the TV-series True Blood) is nothing more than an empty husk of muscles, with enormous biceps and toned abs. Robbie’s Jane is meant to be a proto-feminist. When she’s kidnapped she tries to be defiant, telling Rom that she won’t be a damsel in distress. So why is it that she comes across as exactly that? The inimitable Christophe Waltz unfortunately appears to be Hollywood’s latest villain typecast (Spectre, Big Eyes, Django Unchained), while Samuel L. Jackson’s George Washington is a mere tagalong in the story with no real impact on the plot.
The Legend of Tarzan desperately tries to shake off the racist overtones of previous films (there have been a staggering 49 screen adaptations), by placing the film against the narrative of colonisation and slavery, trying to show the awful impact of the Belgium conference of 1884. But it’s done in such a haphazard way that it falls completely flat. Instead of providing context, it feels plastered on. While the film isn’t overtly racist, it relies on stereotypes to ‘mitigate’ the portrayal of black people as primitive savages. When John and Jane arrive at the village they are welcomed by the singing-dancing ‘natives’ – a stereotypical image of African people’s interaction with white people. Despite George Washington’s presence (which feels completely extraneous), the film is another “white man in the jungle saves African people” that contrasts the ‘noble savage’ with ‘real’ murderous ‘savages’.
This film is a natural comparison (to me at least) with the similar “man grows up in jungle with animals” story, The Jungle Book, which had a spectacular remake earlier this year. Whereas the latter was a moving story with some of the best live-action/CGI made to date, the visual effects in the former feels plastic. The interactions between the humans and animals look as fake as they are, something that’s amplified when watching the film in 3D.
The Legend of Tarzan is disappointing and a real drag to watch. Don’t bother.
Director: David Yates
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christophe Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson
Rating: 2 out of 5
SA release date: 15 July 2016