There’s been a lot of debate if the character of Tarzan is just too antiquated for these times. Edgar Rice Burroughs was no enlightened thinker–the overall tone of his books were racist, and early Tarzan films didn’t exactly portray the African natives in a positive light. Basically, what we had was a European taking his natural spot as King of the Jungle because he was naturally superior to the darker race.
So David Yates and his team have tried again, with The Legend of Tarzan, perfectly aware of what they were dealing with, and the result is a bending over backwards to make the whole thing PC. The natives have actual characters, not just a mass of “ooga booga” savages, and the villains in the pieces are colonialists. And while Jane spends most of the film as a damsel in distress, she can more than hold her own.
So if this is Tarzan for the modern age, I was kind of disappointed. The film looks great, but was so wrapped in apologia that I was longing for some simple adventure, without the looking at the audience and saying, “We’re not racists.”
In this Tarzan, our man (Alexader Skarsgard) has hung up his loincloth and is living the life of English gentry as the Earl of Greystoke. In the Belgian Congo, King Leopold’s right hand man (Christoph Waltz) is looking for some legendary diamonds. He strikes a deal with a chief (Djimoun Hounsou)–he gets the diamonds, if Waltz can deliver Tarzan to him. So Waltz contrives for a phony diplomatic mission, in which Skarsgard is to come. But the plot thickens when Jane (Margot Robbie) insists on coming along, as does an American diplomat, Samuel L. Jackson.
In this film, Tarzan turns out to be a combination of Spider-Man and Dr. Dolittle, as he has a special bond with animals, especially the gorillas he grew up with. In Tarzan movies, we accept that a person can leap off a cliff and grab a vine that will hold his weight, or that a man could fight a gorilla and not be completely ripped from limb to limb. Everyone involved sells the whole concept, even Jackson, who brings some anachronistic contemporary qualities to his character (who was a real person,) But I felt drained by the PC nature of the film–the underlying cause is against slavery, certainly a noble one, but to me Tarzan films demand a certain silliness, a certain Saturday-afternoon serial quality.
Skarsgard and Robbie, both sleek as panthers, make an attractive pairing, and Waltz can do these Euro-villain parts in his sleep (he is the heir to Alan Rickman in this regard). In fact, most of the suspense of the film is wondering what animal will kill him, which I won’t spoil here. We also get the answer to the question why natives never rode zebras.
As summer blockbusters go, The Legend of Tarzan is tolerable if not scintillating. It’s not as profound and moving as Greystoke, the last serious attempt at the character was. If the film can make it’s money back there could be promise in a sequel, as the ending suggests that you can take the boy out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the boy.