VOD Review: The Legend of Tarzan
With the monkeys ruling the cinema this week, I look at the 2016 retelling of Tarzan, King of the Jungle. The film is a solid if not spectacular film for 90% of its runtime, then decides to go ape-shit at the end.
Neil and Eric were not all that jazzed about The Legend of Tarzan when it was doing its promotional rounds. I watched it this January, thanks to a free movie coupon from RedBox. I then promptly forgot about the movie. While I didn’t hate The Legend of Tarzan, it didn’t stick with me enough to even merit a review at the time. Let’s see why this gorilla got lost in the mist.
The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Tarzan has left the jungle behind. Now known as John Clayton III, Earl of Greystoke, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) has settled down into Victorian society with his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). While everyone is still fascinated by his time living among the Mangani apes, John wishes to leave that time forgotten in the past. The past, however, has not forgotten Tarzan.
Belgium is financially bankrupt. Its morally bankrupt King Leopold decides to exploit the fabled riches contained in the Free State of Congo, one of Belgium’s new possessions. He sends his envoy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to find the diamonds of Opar. Rom’s party is massacred by a local warlord who then strikes a bargain with Rom: the diamonds in exchange for Chief Mbonga’s hated enemy Tarzan.
The Belgian government conspires to lure Tarzan back to Africa via a diplomatic invitation to supervise the work being done in the Congo. At first he declines, disinterested in answering the call of the wild. An American Envoy (Samuel L. Jackson), suspicious of an active slave trade in the Congo, convinces Tarzan to return to his adoptive homeland. Tarzan, Jane and envoy Williams embark to the heart of Africa, unaware of the forces arrayed against them.
I’m going to go through the pros and cons of this movie pretty quickly. It’ll save room for the rant at the end. You’ve been warned.
Alexander Skarsgard works well as both Tarzan and John. His physicality is both awe inspiring and, oddly enough, stately. When he’s decked out in Victorian finery, he has the composure and posture to inspire a reasonable level of respect.
I’ve seen a lot of Margot Robbie recently. You can take that either way and it would be true. My growing opinion of Robbie is this: she’s like a singer that only has a 2-3 Octave range, but she sings very well when she’s within that range. I doubt I’d enjoy her in Shakespeare, but she has charisma and an aura of competence to her portrayals that I generally enjoy. She’s totally fine in this movie. While her Jane isn’t going to set the feminist world ablaze, she delivers a confident, intelligent and charmingly tomboyish interpretation.
Lastly, Samuel L. Jackson is… mercifully restrained. Which is nice. I was getting sick of his Monkey Fighting antics in these Monday to Friday movies!
Less legend, more Tarzan.
This movie assumes you know Tarzan. In fact it almost tacitly implies that you’d be just fine assuming that this movie is a sequel to Christopher Lambert’s 1984 take on the legend. It doesn’t bog down into telling Tarzan’s origin story, and only does a few flashbacks when appropriate. This movie lets Tarzan and Jane be your tour guides (Sam Jackson’s character pretty much acts as your surrogate on this safari), and only when it adds context to what’s happening in the here and now do we get backstory. Good job.
This movie adds little touches and flourishes here and there that allow you to accept the possibility that this movie could actually happen. Well, for the most part, but we’ll get to that later. Jane is an ornithologist that lived with an African tribe while doing her studies, and she actively assists the world building. Tarzan has both the morphology and mannerisms that create a believable interpretation of how a child raised by apes might survive in the wild. It allows you to turn the skeptical part of your brain off and just let the adventure wash over you.
What Doesn’t Work
The Legend of Tarzan takes all the credibility it creates with the audience through its run-time and blows it out the airlock at the end. We get this Tarzan that, while impressive for a human, is a human. Just about anything in the Jungle would kill a lone human, I don’t care how sweet your abs are. The movie acknowledges that and gives us a believable Tarzan. Tarzan avoids trouble. He knows how to stay unobtrusive. He understands what provokes and what placates all the animals that could easily maul him. It was an intelligent choice that gets forgotten at the end, when the script decides to turn Tarzan into “Savanna Aquaman”. Just so they can have a giant set-piece battle, Tarzan becomes a preternatural animal whisperer. The Rumble in the Jungle at the end felt really, really stupid.
If felt so out of place in the movie that my hypothesis is that David Yates filmed most of the movie assuming that if he stayed under budget he’d get to pocket the extra cash. Then the boys in legal told him that wasn’t true just as he started filming the final sequence. To which he replied, “Fuck it. How many CGI wildebeests can we buy with the remaining budget?”.
I Promised You a Rant, Did I Not?
I am sick to death of trailers that straight up lie to the audience. It’s not marketing, it’s fake news. And I fucking hate that term.
The trailer for this movie was a complete con-job. They spent the entire time hyping all the daring-do that Tarzan was going to unleash upon us. It sold us such a powerful, masterful and virile King of the Jungle that I thought I was going to leave this movie both awestruck and pregnant. It reached its crescendo with the scene where Tarzan and an angry ape go charging at each other like Superman and Zod.
What they fail to tell you is that the second after Tarzan flies into that ape, the ape bodies him. Straight dominates him. And he knew that going in. In order to get his old family’s acceptance back, he had to challenge his brother, who is now the tribes alpha. He then had to lose and submit completely. It was a moment that once again made Tarzan believable, and the trailer sold it to you like Godzilla and King Kong were about to throw down.
A Decent Movie with some Unfortunate Monkey Shine
If this movie had been truthful about its content, and had omitted the shit show at the end, I would actually recommend it. The Legend of Tarzan is a pinch of 1984’s Greystoke, a dash of The Mummy, and a sizable dollop of The Last of the Mohicans. Both Skarsgard and Robbie are gorgeous people who spend most of the time pleasing your eye while doing a decent job of satisfying your brain. But as it is, I have to give the movie two opposable thumbs down.