Main cast: Alexander Skarsgård (John Clayton III/Tarzan), Margot Robbie (Jane Porter), Samuel L Jackson (George Washington Williams), Christoph Waltz (Captain Léon Rom), and Djimon Hounsou (Chief Mbonga)
Director: David Yates
I’m not sure why anyone would want to make another Tarzan movie, much less a live action one, considering how the past efforts didn’t fare too well critically and commercially. The Legend of Tarzan is not the worst Tarzan movies out there, but it isn’t a movie that one should rush out and see either. And before you think of bringing the kids in, do note that Tarzan and Jane get it on in this movie – not that the scenes are in any way explicit, it’s just that your kids may ask questions you don’t feel like answering yet.
On the bright side, this one isn’t another “origins” story, as there are already so many of those. Instead, Tarzan starts out living in London, now married to Jane and having embraced his birthright to be John Clayton III, Lord Greystroke. Meanwhile, King Leopot of Belgium has taken control of Congo through treaties and such, and he intends to enslave the entire nation to support his expansionist endeavors. Alas, he is already bankrupt, so his Congo emissary, Captain Léon Rom, sees an opportunity to further his monarch’s plans and get a promotion: he’d locate some mythical priceless diamonds and pay off the King’s mercenaries, who are currently on strike due to non-payment. The diamonds are held by a tribe led by Chief Mbonga, who has a score to settle with Tarzan. He tells Rom that Rom will get the diamonds if that man delivers Tarzan to Chief Mbonga. Hence, the trap is set.
When Tarzan receives the invitation by King Leopot to visit Congo, he initially refuses. His life is in England now, after all. The American emissary George Washington Williams suggests that they both should go to Congo, as he has heard unfounded rumors that the armies of Belgium seizing the natives to be made into slaves. This means Tarzan’s old buddies and the people he considers his family may be in danger too. Tarzan reluctantly agrees, and Jane insists on coming along.
Oh, and surprise, Rom ends up capturing Jane, forcing Tarzan, George, the native cheerleading people, and some animals to go to her rescue.
Really, this movie is not bad. Sure, if you want to find the whole thing politically incorrect, you can. That’s one of the reasons why I’m puzzled by this movie. At this point in time, everyone wants to be politically correct, and let’s face it, Tarzan is a classic example of a white savior movie. This movie, however, tries to make things less politically incorrect: despite being a damsel in distress, Jane tries her best to get away on her own, so she’s actually not a bad heroine at all; the natives are portrayed as people who just happen to embrace a different culture rather than primitive savages that need to be saved; and we have a black sidekick from America. But the movie often swings the other end of the spectrum a little too far – it ends up portraying the Congo natives as Care Bear-like universally pleasant and happy people living in a white person’s version of Eden (unless the natives don’t like Tarzan, then they, like Chief Mbonga, are the bad guys, and more tellingly, the bad natives wear white body paint, because only white people can be evil these days), the white people are universally evil and bigoted unless they are Tarzan and his allies, et cetera. And the movie, at the end of the day, is still about the white guy and his wife lording it over the dark-skinned natives, and worse, America through George Washington Williams is now an international police of some sort, going after countries like someone has elected it to be a global tribunal.
I don’t mind these elements, and I don’t watch Tarzan movies for political correctness – I’m just pointing out that this movie doesn’t succeed in trying to mask the elements from its source material that may offend certain left-wing people, and I wish they haven’t tried, because the end result may have turned out to be something less bland.
And The Legend of Tarzan is bland. Its pacing is sluggish, especially in its first half or so when Tarzan and Jane are still meandering around on their way to Congo, and look, Tarzan and some lioness dry hump another! Tarzan communicates telepathically with some elephants! Tarzan and Jane are welcomed by natives who tell George that those two are the most awesome ever! Flashbacks to the past that would have been familiar to folks familiar with the whole thing! Oh, and predictably enough, the bad guys show up and slaughter a couple of the natives before kidnapping Jane and a few other natives for collateral and slavery respectively, but at least things get interesting then.
Most of the cast are pretty good. Samuel L Jackson gets a big role instead of some glorified cameo in those Marvel movies, and he easily steals the show here because the script gives him all the funny lines. Christoph Waltz is also solid as a despicable villain that makes the skin crawl, while Margot Robbie makes the most out of a role that sees her either being the wife or the lady in need of rescue. And the movie in its last third or so pick up its pacing considerably and while there are some eye-rolling ridiculous “animals to the rescue” moments, the animals are generally okay. They don’t look too real, but the animations, especially those of the chimpanzees, are pretty good.
Djimon Hounsou, poor guy, is playing another scary black guy, but I suppose one has to make money whenever the opportunity arises to pay the bills. But the weakest link here is Alexander Skarsgård. Okay, I have no delusions that he is an impressive actor by any means, but the people in film is going for a Fabio-like aesthetic for Tarzan here, and the poor fellow looks so silly with those long tresses. The script for some reason turns Tarzan into an angst-laden walking set of pectoral muscles, so the character has no interesting lines – Mr Skarsgård spends the bulk of the movie doing his best impersonation of a brooding scowl, only to end up with a dead-eyed completely blank expression instead each time. Oh, once Tarzan loses the shirt, it never comes back (the pants remain on, alas), and Mr Skarsgård obligingly worked on his body to put on a nice show – he’s paid to do this, after all. But Tarzan ends up being as sexy as a stick of celery, because that poor fellow has no discernible personality other than “prickly surly 24/7”. That kind of, er, method acting may fit right in in some cheesy vampire romance movie, but come on, this is Tarzan. Can we at least have the exuberant warcry? Everything is joyless here, mostly because any levity is disproportionately given to Samuel L Jackson’s character.
At the end of the day, The Legend of Tarzan isn’t a bad movie. It’s watchable for times when there is nothing else to tune into. But the pacing is sluggish for the most part, the story isn’t memorable, and worst of all, they have the wrong guy playing the lead role, and the movie proceeds to turn Tarzan into some shirtless emo mannequin that is as interesting and sexy as a broken down toaster. Don’t watch this in the cinema, go rent it instead. Any disappointment that arises would be easier to bear if you didn’t pay so much to watch it.