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The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Rated PG13

Starring: Alexandar Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, and Margot Robbie

Rating:
**1/2
out of
*****

 
 

I grew up on a steady diet of Tarzan as a child.  Whether it was the old Johnny Weissmuller films from the 1930s and 40s, the Ron Ely television series from the 1960s, or the 1970s DC Comics version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' character, I was constantly being exposed to him. The idea of a boy raised by apes and then growing up to become a guardian of the jungle and its animal inhabitants just struck a chord with me. The fact that he was also connected to aristocracy and had immense riches was just the icing on the cake.

I was skeptical when I heard that another reboot of the character was headed to theaters.  Recent attempts to modernize older characters, for the most part, haven't fared very well.  (Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series, which was the inspiration for Disney's ill-fated John Carter, immediately comes to mind.) However, the trailers for The Legend of Tarzan looked interesting enough so I decided to give it the chance to rekindle my interest in John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke.

The film opens with an explanation of Belgium's King Leopold and his failed attempts to colonize the African Congo.  Debt-ridden and desperate for cash, Leopold sends Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, in fine cartoony villain mode), into the jungle searching for a long-rumored source of diamonds. Rom finds that these diamonds are in a territory called Opar, which is controlled by Chief Mbonga and his warriors. Mbonga is willing to trade access to the diamonds for the capture of Tarzan.

When we first meet Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård,) he is living in England as part of the country's aristocracy. His real name is John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke and he prefers to be called that as opposed to Tarzan. John receives an invitation from King Leopold to return to the Congo to see the progress that has been made in the region. Schools and new jobs are benefitting the people of the area and Leopold would like John to see the change in his former homeland.  (Of course, this is just a ploy set in motion by Rom to get him to the Congo so he can be delivered to Mbonga.) John initially refuses to go, stating that England is his home now. An American journalist named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) informs John that Leopold is bankrupt and could only be making the progress he's making in the country with the use of slave labor. Williams wants John to go to the Congo to help him find evidence of this slave trade. John then accepts the invitation.

We learn through flashbacks that John Clayton III or, rather, Tarzan, was a baby when his aristocratic parents, John and Alice Clayton, were in the Congo for reasons unexplained. Alice died from an undisclosed illness and John was attacked and killed by Mangani, gorilla-like apes. Infant John was adopted by Kala, a female Mangani, who seemed to feel sorry for the fact that the baby had lost his parents. In further flashbacks, we see how John became Tarzan by learning the ways of the jungle from his adopted ape family. (Although, to be fair, the script does not go into a terrible amount of detail on how he learned what he did. He just demonstrates his jungle prowess later. One is to assume, I guess, that he learned these skills from the apes.)

We also learn through flashbacks that Tarzan/John met an American woman named Jane Porter (Margot Robbie), who was working with villagers in the Congo. Her first encounter with Tarzan is comically awkward and one of the best moments in the film. Tarzan and Jane are eventually married and, at the beginning of the movie, the couple is living in England. Against his wishes, though, Jane accompanies Tarzan on his trip back to the Congo. Of course, this means that she will be part of the trap when it comes to Rom's plan for capturing Tarzan.

The Legend of Tarzan's script initially makes strides to be faithful to Edgar Rice Burroughs' source material. However, director David Yates and editor Mark Day are faced with the challenge of explaining John Clayton/Tarzan's dual roles in both England and the Congo as well as propelling the story forward. They can't seem to find a way to do that other than through the use of flashbacks and seemingly endless expositional dialogue. The weird editing makes scenes that should be important action set pieces seem rushed and dulled. The cinematography is heavily reliant on CGI and many times characters seem to be standing in front of pre-rendered backgrounds rather than foraging through the dangerous jungle of the African Congo. Tarzan's animal friends (and foes) are also digitally created and, once again, this takes the viewer out of most scenes in which they appear.

The characters and performances, however, are quite good and they save the The Legend of Tarzan from being a completely lost cause.  Tarzan, as portrayed by Skarsgård, is very much the character I loved as a child. He's strong but honor-bound. He's ready to defend those he loves at a moment's notice. Robbie's Jane is quite spunky and fiesty. Her scenes with the aforementioned Waltz are great. Samuel L. Jackson's role seems to have been written especially for Samuel L. Jackson as he merely provides us with exposition and occasional much-needed humor.

One thing that The Legend of Tarzan does well that other Tarzan films and adaptations have not done before - at least in my memory - is tackling the dark side of colonialism and the rampant slaughter of wildlife during the late 1800s. When Tarzan meets a family of elephants that he refers to as "old friends," we've already seen trainloads of ivory tusks being hauled out of Leopold's Congo. The scene is at once sad and thought provoking.  Would Tarzan's friends meet their deaths at the hands of ivory hunters?  Also, of course, Leopold's disregard for the culture of the native tribes and their use of slaves is also directly addressed in not-too-graphic but obvious fashion.

The Legend of Tarzan is a movie I would have loved to have enjoyed.  Sadly, there is just something intangible missing that keeps it from being a "must-see" reinvention of the classic character. If you're looking for the best and most modern take on the Tarzan story, I'd have to recommend 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes over this film. At least that one features Rick Baker's spectacular practical ape effects which are much better than CGI any day.   

Trivia: Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was in talks to play Tarzan. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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