Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Why does Hollywood keep trying to put a modern spin on classic stories (“Lone Ranger,” “Green Hornet”) from a more racist, patriarchal time? It never works. As in “Lone Ranger,” the hero here gets short shrift. We don’t get to see Tarzan being Tarzan until about 40 minutes in. And even then, it’s a little too CG. Give me Johnny Weissmuller any day.
Hell, no one even falls into quicksand. What a rook.
Tarzan, Lord of Greystoke Manor
“The Legend of Tarzan” doesn’t begin badly. An opening title card tells us European powers have divvied up the African Congo at the 1884 Berlin Conference, but King Leopold of Belgium has run up massive debt trying to exploit his portion’s ivory and mineral riches. So he sends his trusted assistant Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to discover “the legendary diamonds of Opar.”
That’s a nice mix of real history (Berlin conference) and 1920s-era adventure stories for boys (diamonds of Opar). Rom’s party winds up massacred by the natives, and it’s just him versus this huge warrior. Rom improbably wins. The trial chief (Djimon Hounsou) then cuts a deal: the diamonds in exchange for ... Tarzan.
CUT TO: London, where John Clayton/Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgaard) now lives with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), as the stately Earl of Greystoke.
Wait, what? No discovery of Tarzan? He’s already been discovered? And civilized?
He also doesn’t want to go back to Africa. He’s invited by Leopold, through the British P.M. (Jim Broadbent, wasted), but declines. Because he senses it’s a trap? Either way, it’s up to George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), the highly improbable (OK, impossible), trash-talking, 19th-century, African-American envoy, to tell him Leopold is enslaving the Africans again, so they should return to free them. Even that doesn’t work. But Jane wants to go, so sure.
In Africa, they stay with a tribe they know, and we get some backstory: how Tarzan used his body to shield Jane from a crazed Mangani ape; how she cared for him after that. Then, at night, Rom arrives to kidnap both Tarzan and Jane. Why Jane? As a control? Seems like extra work. No matter. Williams manages to free Tarzan before they get on the boat, but Rom keeps going because he knows Tarzan will follow to rescue Jane.
Get that? The biggest problem with Tarzan in 2016 is the racist aspect of it, the “white god” aspect of it, and Tarzan’s early fumblings here, and Williams rescue of him, help alleviate that for modern audiences. But it also lessens the legend. What good is Tarzan if he needs rescue by a 60-year-old dude, who, as they go in pursuit of Rom, can hardly keep up? The members of the tribe can, and they can swing from vines, too, with Tarzan, and this is also supposed to alleviate some of the racism. It actually does the opposite. You wonder:
- How much stronger/faster is Tarzan than these guys? If he is, why? If he isn’t, why is he a legend? Just because he’s white?
- No, it’s because he was raised by apes. But why did the ape mother decide to rescue the baby Tarzan and raise him as her own? Did she never come across black babies? Does she do it just because he’s white?
- Wait, isn’t this just a white man’s fantasy that if one of ours was raised in the jungle we would be so much stronger/faster/smarter than the Africans that we would be lords of the jungle?
Yeah, that’s not good.
Hug it out, bra
Tarzan movies tend to be damsel-in-distress movies, too, and “The Legend of Tarzan” is no different, even if it tries to fudge things by making Robbie’s Jane “feisty.” But she’s still the damsel in need of rescuing. She’s still forced to endure meals and insinuating conversation with Christoph Waltz.
In the last half hour, screenwriters Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad (“Hustle & Flow” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” respectively), and director David Yates (four Harry Potter movies), finally let Tarzan be Tarzan, but by then you’re bored to death, and the phony CG doesn’t help. There’s also reconciliation and understanding with the tribal chief, who wanted to kill Tarzan because Tarzan killed his son (because his son killed Tarzan’s mom), but Tarzan cries, and admits his mistake, and ... Jesus. Rom gets his via crocodiles. Tarzan and Williams get bromance jokey. Tarzan and Jane stay in Africa.
What a failure. I don’t know who thought this story structure was a good idea—that the discovery of Tarzan was the boring part. I don’t know who thought making the tribesmen mini-Tarzans and bringing Sam Jackson along for the ride would alleviate the racism.
To me, if you’re going to do Tarzan in the 21st century, you need to give the ape mother a reason to raise Tarzan besides the fact that he’s white. (In “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1985), it’s because she recently lost her own baby.) It would also help to clarify why a human raised by apes would become so much stronger and faster than other humans.
Another way to alleviate the racism: You could make Tarzan black.
Scott Rudin: Call me.