Producers: Warner Bros. Pictures
Runtime: 99 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
EE Critic Score: 6/10
Tarzan is not a character I am too terribly familiar with. Sure, I’ve heard of him, but this movie is actually the first piece of Tarzan media I’ve consumed. As its title suggests, this movie relies heavily on audience familiarity. I’m reminded of Superman Returns, that strange sequel-without-antecedent, a follow-up to no movie in particular. This barely worked for Superman. Tarzan is, at least today, less relevant than Superman, so I question his ability to pull off a similar feat.
The Legend of Tarzan is not a retelling of the story of Tarzan the feral child raised as an ape being found and brought back into British civilization by his future wife. These events are in the movie’s past, told in supplemental flashbacks. The main plot of the movie actually is only concerned with Tarzan in a secondary sort of way. Truly, the main protagonist is George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a character based on a real person: the American dignitary who investigated and exposed abuses in Belgian Congo. Here, Williams enlists John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, the former Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) as his guide through the Congo Basin jungles in a very loose adaption of the real Williams’s life story.
Our villains, as well, are a team of fictional and real people. Belgian agent Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is sent by King Leopold II of Belgium in search of the Diamonds of Opar, which are held by classic Tarzan villain Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). Mbonga names the diamonds as bounty on Tarzan’s life. Therefore, Lord Greystoke is invited to tour Leopold’s Congo Free State. He initially declines, but is persuaded to go by G. W. Williams, who will use the visit to investigate how a bankrupt king can be doing all he claims to improve the Congo without enslaving the Congolese people.
Analysis of Story
At the core of the movie is a compelling story, if a simple one. Tarzan is difficult to adapt; the original novels present, shall we say, a very early-20th century view of Africa. Again, I haven’t read any of Burroughs's work, but as I understand it, many have seen Tarzan as a hero of white supremacy, what with him all by his lonesome dominating surrounding tribes. Also, the Opari in the novels are literally monkey-people.
For this reason, modern adaptions often leave native tribes out altogether, instead focusing on the ape-man aspect of Tarzan’s character, and his relationship with the gorillas. His existence as a being with the intelligence of a human and the upbringing and wilderness skills of a gorilla is a variation of the wild-man archetype. This trope has existed as long as there has been a civilization for the character to be apart from. (See the character Enkidu from the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh.)
The Legend of Tarzan does feature Opar. Leon Rom uses the Opari for his ends until G. W. Williams convinces Mbonga that Rom will “make it like they never existed” along with the other Congolese.
Speaking of other Congolese, there is another tribe in the movie. They welcome Tarzan, Jane, and Williams as they arrive in the Congo. They appear to have a history with Jane (Margot Robbie), who the chief calls his “American daughter”.
I’m not certain how authentic these tribes are. The Opari’s attire is based on a real thing, I’ve found out. Anyway, this is a Tarzan movie, not a documentary.
Mbonga of Opar is seeking Tarzan’s life in exchange for that of his son’s; Tarzan had killed the Opari prince in retaliation for the prince having killed Kala, the ape who had served as Tarzan’s mother, in a rite of passage. Tarzan is lured by Rom to Opar. Along the way, he and Williams encounter various jungle obstacles (mostly CG animals), and we learn about each’s past. (Williams discusses his background with Tarzan. Tarzan, at semiregular intervals, looks off in the distance and has a flashback.)
When they get to Opar, Mbonga challenges Tarzan to a duel. Tarzan narrowly gains the upper hand. Mbonga confronts Tarzan over his son’s death, demanding to know where Tarzan’s honor was in killing the boy. Tarzan admits that he had none, that he was little more than a beast in those days.
Williams breaks up the fight, and the rest of the movie is an Indiana Jones-esque race to recover the diamonds from Rom before Leopold’s debts can be paid. There’s a stampede of gnus, and Williams gets a Gatling gun. Rom is eaten by alligators, etc., etc. Williams returns to England to expose the Belgians.
Alexander Skarsgard is not terribly compelling as Tarzan, I’m afraid. He’s not helped by the fact that Tarzan is not really the protagonist of the film nor by the fact that much of Tarzan’s action scenes are CG. There’s nothing awful about his performance, but overall, the character just isn’t very memorable
George Washington Williams
Samuel L. Jackson is doubtless the highest paid actor in the cast, and he earns every penny. He is easily the best part of the movie. As I mentioned before, he is the film’s real protagonist.
The real Williams was a Civil War veteran and Baptist minister, as well as a journalist and historian. Jackson portrays him as a cowboy-type who hopes to aid the Congolese in an attempt to atone for his own part inf the conquest of Native Americans. His difficulty navigating the jungle is played for comedy.
Margot Robbie plays Tarzan’s wife, Jane Porter Clayton. She serves as an exposition giver and later as Rom’s bait to lure Tarzan to Opar. Robbie plays the character as willful and feisty in an attempt to lessen the damsel-y nature of the character, but these attempts are themselves now a bit cliche. (For instance, an early scene has a jab at corsets crowbarred into it.) Overall, a fine performance. More interesting than Skarsgard’s Tarzan, but nothing spectacular.
Djimon Hounsou portrays Mbonga, chief of the leopard men of Opar. He and his people are presented as brutal and foreboding, but ultimately somewhat justified in their hatred of Tarzan. While Opar is fictional, the leopard men are based on the real-life cannibal society Anyoto Aniota.
Christoph Waltz plays Rom as a more terrible and Catholic version of Beloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark. (He dies like Mola Rahm, to make another Indy reference) His character is intensely unlikable, but the real Rom had severed heads in his garden and a gallows in his backyard, so this probably isn’t unjust defamation.
Waltz’s Rom is memorable chiefly for his signature weapon being a string of rosary beads. Because Catholic pulp-action villain.
Analysis as a Film
This is an uneven experience as a film. Williams and Rom aside, the characters are not particularly interesting to watch. CGI is used as a crutch in many scenes, and it rarely looks convincing. Generally, for an attempt at a franchise and for a budget of $180 million, the movie could have looked better in some scenes.
The soundtrack serves, but I can’t really remember any songs.
For all I’ve said about CGI in this film, I should mention that there are many practical sets, and they’re quite detailed and well constructed. Even if they’re only in very brief shots, they look authentic.
I liked more of this movie than I disliked. I was surprised, really, how good it was. While I’m not sure it will make its budget back, and I doubt we’ll see more of this Tarzan in any sequels, I enjoyed seeing this film. If you like Tarzan, you might like this. Again, Tarzan chiefly serves to bring Williams to the Congo, as well as to audiences. I wouldn’t recommend paying full ticket price to see this, but some visuals are good enough to earn recommendation that, if your local theater has some discount showing, you could get your money’s worth.