THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) review
written by: Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer
produced by: Jerry Weintraub, David Barron, Alan Riche & Tony Ludwig
directed by: David Yates
rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue)
runtime: 110 min.
U.S. release date: July 1, 2016
I don’t think many people are familiar with the fact that Tarzan was a literary figure long before Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe or Ron Ely slipped into their respective loincloths. The iconic Ape Man raised was created by writer Edgar Rice Burroughs and first appeared in novel form way back in 1914, but the character would go on to be portrayed in countless live-action movies and television series as well as numerous animated iterations, not to mention several radio programs, comic books, toys and video games. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why so many are unfamiliar with the character’s literary origins – he’s shown up in so many other forms that people have lost where he came from. Director David Yates is hoping to provide some of that with “The Legend of Tarzan”, an entertaining yarn that surprisingly winds up being a suitable gateway introduction to the character.
This iteration of Tarzan’s story is set in the 1880s and opens in the Congo, after the land has been divided up between the UK and Belgium. Since King Leopold II of Belgium has plummeted his country into debt in his attempts at building a railway and has now sent an emissary Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to extract the bountiful resources of the land’s diamond mines of Opar and control the region. But when everyone in his party is taken out by Chief Mbonga (Djimon Honsou) and his tribe, the clever opportunist promises to deliver Tarzan to the revenge-seeking chief in exchange for diamonds.
Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) goes by John Clayton III now, Lord of Greystoke Manor and resides in London with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), having given up life in the jungle. His reputation looms large though especially amongst the curious children who long for tales of his adventures growing up in Africa. However, at the behest of the Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) and the prodding of American soldier, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), John reluctantly accepts an invitation from King Leopold II to visit the port town of Boma and report on the activity to rebuild the Congo, amid rumors of slave trading.
With Jane inviting herself and accompanied by Williams, John is forced to reconnect with his roots, his tribal friends and the animal kingdom he has a rapport with. When Rom suddenly attacks with his mercenaries, Jane is kidnapped and used to lure her husband. Enraged and determined to rescue his wife, John reverts back to his legendary ways and status as Lord of the Apes and pursues Rom with Williams’ help, intent on reuniting with his wife and preventing a Belgium army from arriving and overwhelming the Congo.
Known for closing out the “Harry Potter” series on a satisfying and tasteful note after directing the last three features, Yates earned Warner Bros. colossal box office returns. It comes as no surprise that the studio tapped Yates yet again as they set out to revitalize the Tarzan mythos for a new generation, for the first time since 1999’s Disney animated feature. He brings an understanding of characterization, preferring to get to know the characters on-screen before diving into jungle action. “The Legend of Tarzan” thankfully gives us a chance to get to know a Tarzan who must reconnect with who he is, while recalling his own memories of growing up in Africa and meeting Jane for the first time in select flashbacks which are portioned throughout the film.
Some of the screenplay’s flashback scenes, written by Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow” and the “Footloose” remake) and Adam Cozard, feel all too familiar, such as when the sympathetic ape Kala snatches an abandoned boy after his parents have died and raises him as her own, an action that is frowned upon by the other apes. In a way, that’s kind of the equivalent of revisiting the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Regardless, I appreciated the effort to provide history for the main character through his own reflections. The storyline is an amalgam of Burrough’s The Return of Tarzan and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar as well as elements culled from Dark Horse Comics.
There are certain expectations in a Tarzan movie, but for the most part, this feels like a unique take on the character, especially using Jackson’s Williams as the audience’s avatar, who’s often in disbelief at his surroundings and astounded by Tarzan’s prowess once they’re in Africa. Jackson brings some comic relief to the movie with his animated reactions and zinger responses, but he’s also a competent sideman to Tarzan, having seen the outcome of slavery on his own during the American Civil War.
As Tarzan and Jane, from a purely physical perspective, Skarsgård and Robbie, prove themselves to be the most beautiful actors who’ve ever been cast in these roles (yes, I’m considering Bo Derek from 1981’s “Tarzan the Ape Man”) and maybe that’s shallow of me to notice, but after all, Tarzan is supposed to be the epitome male specimen and Jane his alluring beauty that tames his wildness. At 6′ 4″, Skarsgård is the tallest to ever play Tarzan and the actor physically transformed himself, sporting an 8-pack once he starts swinging through the jungle with his pals and confronts the apes he must prove his worth to again. Skarsgård is getting flack already for being bland and humorless, which is exactly what I’d expect from Tarzan. This isn’t “George of the Jungle”.
The character of Tarzan never came across as a superhero or an extrovert, having been raised by apes leaves him susceptible to the strong-and-silent type, which is what we have here with Skarsgård as we notice an internal struggle while embracing his heritage after integrating into waistcoats and knickers for so long. Unlike the trailers for the movie, Robbie’s Jane isn’t just another damsel in distress. She’s more than capable of helping herself and when captured by Rom her performance is reminiscent of Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, especially when she’s forced to having dinner with her captor.
Speaking of Belloq, that’s exactly who Waltz seems to be channeling here in both attire and disposition, yet the result is just more of the same type of villains the actor has become known for. He relishes in repeating himself here, coasting on familiarity. He might as well be named Snidely Whiplash in this movie with his smug demeanor and awful sniveling. At no point does Waltz ever offer anything unique or different to the villain role, save for the ridiculous choice of rosary beads as a weapon. Although Rom is loosely based on a real-life person, “Legend” would’ve benefited from having Honsou as the main villain, considering the vendetta his character has toward Tarzan.
Last summer I watched a rough cut of “Legend of Tarzan” with Yates in attendance, before all the CGI was completed. At that time, I appreciated the movie’s tone and approach the story was taking. That hasn’t changed, although I still found Waltz’s work here annoying. Seeing the final cut now, I must admit how impressive the visual effects were. All or most of the animals the actors interact with are products of elaborate CGI and what I saw was a step up from the CGI animals in “The Jungle Book” a couple of months back. Yates and cinematographer Henry Braham (“The Golden Compass” and next year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”) are keen to show the lush jungles, golden savannas and winding rivers (filled with hippos) the story calls for, although the entire film was shot in Wales and England, save for some aerial shots of Gabon, located on the West Coast of Central Africa.
This is a summer movie released in the summer. That may seem like an obvious statement, but it must be made considering so many are already writing “The Legend of Tarzan” off. Maybe that’s because it certain critics are calling this the Worst Summer Movie Season Ever, due to all the lousy sequels that have been released since May. This isn’t a sequel and it’s not lousy. Is it going to make as much money as Yates’ “Harry Potter” movies? Of course not. Does it take a timeless iconic figure and deliver old school matinée style entertainment? Yes. Yes, it does.