“Tarzan, you look funny!“ – Chief Kubo to a suited up Tarzan.
As children, we grew up with stories that taught us bravery, courage, kindness, and morality. They enchanted us with tales of different lands and their peoples, of peace and war, of nature and its progeny. ‘Tarzan of the apes’, is one of those timeless pieces. A young baby, who, after the death of his parents in the African Jungle, is brought up by a kindly gorilla named Kala. His adventures with his friends, Terk the gorilla and Tantor the neurotic elephant, in the movie ‘Tarzan'(1998) and its TV series spin-off, captivated the 90’s generation. It was innocent enough to capture the spirit of the story without bringing up the reality and the harshness of the wild, while also shrugging off its legacy as a racist stereotype in yet another white man in a jungle story. ‘The Legend of Tarzan’, the movie, however, has no such luck. Serious, harsh, violent (thankfully not gory), and ambitious, the movie brings back every question pertaining to the very premise of Tarzan. Although, in its defense, the movie takes on the story’s inherent stereotypes with frequent ‘I know what this looks like, but it’s not that.’ moments, which actually work, but at the cost of audience interest and sacrificing the urgency of the plot.
Tarzan, eight years after his return to London from Africa, is now Lord John Greystoke and lives with his wife Jane Porter in the dreary, dark halls of a London Manor. The King of Belgium extends to him an invite to visit the Congo Basin, to which he offers a deadpan ‘No’. ‘It’s hot’. After a bit of convincing, a spot of ambition (to abolish slavery in the Congo of course), John sets out along with Jane and the comic relief and expert marksman, George Washington Williams, a much needed Samuel Jackson (surely, if he’s in the movie, it’s not racist or white supremacist). Christoph Waltz (of Inglourious Basterds fame), once again provides the nuanced and complex villain in Leon Rom, a character that ultimately goes nowhere. With Leon on the prowl for diamonds for his bankrupt Belgian monarch and Chief Mbonga on a vengeful hunt for Tarzan, an unlikely alliance between the two is formed. ‘Bring him to me’, commands the chief, played by Djimon Hounsou, who makes up for his lack of lines by delivering one of the most inspired acting sequences in the movie. And so the story goes on, hinging on the weak plot of Leon delivering a crate of diamonds to an armada of 20,000 mercenaries, before being stopped by Tarzan’s Adam’s apple (don’t ask), a Maxim machine gun manned (with a capital ‘M’) by Samuel Jackson delivering one-liners and bullets with equally deadly precision, and of course, a horde of a few thousand wildebeest running through a port and trampling Englishmen having tea.
The movie delves into the costs of colonization, with shots of hundreds of elephant tusks being carted by train, tribesmen chained by the neck and enslaved, a beloved character being shot because he refuses to kneel. It also tries (and fails) to capture the awe and appeal of Tarzan, the King of The Jungle, because David Yates, the director, assumes (not so brilliantly) that everyone knows Tarzan’s story. Tarzan as a character succeeds because he is one with nature and understands its creatures. His story is the story of the Jungle. The movie treats this as merely a plot point and fails to integrate it with the main story line, and ends up much like ‘The Lone Ranger’ or any other action adventure thriller, only here, the lead character has cool ‘jungle powers’. Which should be fine in itself, but the inclusion of Tarzan’s legacy in the story means the movie tries to please (and ends up alienating) both Tarzan fans and action-thriller fans, falling short on both accounts. I found this to be quite sad, since Alexander Skarsgård, as Tarzan, creates powerful scenes the few times the movie calls for a communing with wildlife, affectionately rubbing shoulders with a pack of lions, ‘He’s known them since they were cubs’, or a soulful reunion with a herd of elephants, while Samuel Jackson hesitantly pets a baby elephant by his side. Margot Robbie tries, with a committed performance, to bring home the plucky character of Jane Porter in the few scenes she receives, and refuses to be the ‘damsel in distress’ (she is, though).
In the end, all the great acting and all the witty comedy couldn’t put the movie together again, as the CGI and settings felt surprisingly poor and lackluster, seeming more so when compared to the recent ‘The Jungle Book’ with its realistic animated characters operating in a similar jungle setting. The movie takes on a forceful gray tone throughout the movie for absolutely no reason at all. Nothing evil happens, no one suffers but for the bad guys, there’s an abundance of success for the good guys, and enough hope and positive emotion to go around for the entire theater, and yet you’re left wondering, ‘Have I missed something sad here? Did someone die? Why does Director Fury have two eyes and hair?’.
If you’re a die-hard Tarzan fan, (first of all, hello, I’ve never met one before) you will enjoy this movie as much as the Inheritance Cycle fans enjoyed the ‘Eragon’ movie, which is to say, you probably won’t. Action adventure fans, this is a decent watch, with one joke from Samuel Jackson making the movie worthwhile (not telling you). It doesn’t hurt either, to have Margot Robbie and Christoph Waltz in the movie, for their individual performances are quite inspiring to watch, and for some, gratuitous amounts of a shirtless 6’3 Tarzan might just clinch the deal.
-Vishnu Deva for MTTN