Take one cup Spiderman, two cups Batman, stir in a heaping tablespoon of THE JUNGLE BOOK, add in a teaspoon each of JURASSIC PARK and DR. DOOLITTLE, and season with a dash of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS or perhaps SPECTRE, if you prefer. Overbake for about two hours in a tepid oven.
It would be very easy to dismiss THE LEGEND OF TARZAN as being derivative. Yes, Tarzan is very reminiscent of other, more ingrained, superhero characters but let’s remember for a moment who came first. Tarzan was the prototype for all the superheroes that followed. He was also the model for Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli.
Nevertheless, Tarzan remains the property that filmmakers just can’t seem to get right. Sure, some attempts have been more successful than others. I grew up on the TV version of the king of the apes (starring Ron Ely, who I was sure was related to me) as well as those Sunday afternoon reruns of the movie versions starring Johnny Weissmuller. I loved all of those but, then again, I was a kid so what did I know? The character may have hit a low point in 1981 with TARZAN, THE APE MAN starring Miles O’Keeffe and Bo Derek but some of his credibility was redeemed three years later with GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES, starring Christopher Lambert. The problem might be the source material, which was penned by former pencil sharpener salesman, Edgar Rice Burroughs. By Burroughs’ own admission, the Tarzan series of books was never meant to be anything more than pulp fiction. But they proved to be wildly successful with the public and Burroughs was determined to expand the franchise across all fronts, including the then new medium known as motion pictures. Since the movie TARZAN OF THE APES came out in 1918 (just six years after the first book was published), there have been close to 200 features, shorts, video games and TV episodes made about the character.
Tarzan, though, is a relic of an earlier time, when black men were weak and oppressed, when women needed to be rescued and when white men — or only one white man, as is the case here — could save the day. Thankfully, the screenwriters on THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer) understood that and they infused their script with both historical context and modern sensibilities. In this version, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård, TV’s TRUE BLOOD) is out of Africa and is living the privileged life in London as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke. He’s already married to Jane (Margot Robbie, THE BIG SHORT) and they seem to be happy enough in their new locale. When the British cabinet asks Clayton to go to the Congo Free State to find out what King Leopold II of Belgium and his emissary, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz, SPECTRE), are up to there, Clayton’s answer is to turn them down, saying that it’s too hot there — a strange response considering we can all see how uncomfortable Clayton is wearing morning dress and playing a role that has been thrust upon him by his birthright. Fortunately for the Brits, an American — George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson, THE HATEFUL EIGHT) — is in the room and he persuades Clayton to accept. And so, Tarzan, Jane and Williams head off to the Dark Continent together.
Both Rom and Williams were real historical figures in the King Leopold II saga so full marks for weaving some reality into the fiction. Unfortunately, Rom, who history tells us was a nasty piece of work, comes across here as a kind of Snidely Whiplash but without the twirled mustache while Williams, who really did play a role in bringing the king’s misdeeds to light, is reduced to being Tarzan’s affable but reluctant partner in righting wrongs. If you think you’ve seen Waltz and Jackson play these types of characters before, you have. Jane Clayton, for her part, has been given a modern makeover and Robbie plays the part well. While Tarzan was growing up in the jungle and bonding with the animals there, Jane was living in a small village with her family and bonding with the locals. Her experiences made her into a warm, strong, fearless and quite resourceful woman who knows Africa and its people intimately. When Rom captures her in hopes of using her as bait to trap Tarzan, she holds her own but, at the end of the day, she does need to be rescued by the strong, white man.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is not a bad film but it’s not going to be remembered as a classic either. The big problem is that it suffers from a lack of excitement and fun. Even the film’s subplot involving a tribe of warriors whose leader (played by Djimon Hounsou, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) has a score to settle with Tarzan is as dull as the water that flows in the Congo River. Skarsgård does a respectable job brooding and leaping from vine to vine wearing just a pair of form-fitting pants as opposed to a loincloth, which many of his predecessors wore, but I doubt it will be enough to get the studio execs in Hollywood salivating over the possibility of turning this character into yet another multi-billion dollar superhero franchise.
Go see the film. Just don’t expect a lot and you won’t be disappointed.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 34:50.)
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