Director: David Yates Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel Jackson, Christoph Waltz Running Time: 110 minutes
There comes a point when certain stories should be consigned to the past, for being too dated, too old-fashioned, too far removed from modern storytelling to be viable in the present day. Hearing Samuel L. Jackson describe milky white, Viking-blooded Alexander Skarsgård as “Africa’s favourite son” may officially mark that point for Tarzan, Edgar R. Burrough’s pulp jungle man character steeped in troubling colonial attitudes. David Yates, director of the later Harry Potter films, attempts to get around this by placing Tarzan in direct opposition to colonial attitudes, but this fails to solves the problem and in fact throws up some new ones too.
The opening of The Legend of Tarzan throws the character in with real life historical events, specifically the dark history of Belgium in the Congo. Samuel L. Jackson plays George Washington Williams, a man who wrote an open letter to King Leopold II condemning the treatment of Congolese people by the king’s desperate, money-bleeding regime. Here Williams, a man whose story could carry its own film, is relegated to Tarzan’s sidekick who can’t run fast and contemplates licking a gorilla’s testicles. Christoph Waltz plays Léon Rom (or more precisely, Christoph Waltz plays Léon Rom playing Chrisoph Waltz), a brutal official alleged to have kept the heads of Congolese people on display in his front garden. Here he wants diamonds and to do a kiss on Margot Robbie. Tarzan and Jane (Robbie) are called back to Africa from the comforts of blue-blood life on the English moors to help Williams investigate slavery in the Congo, all secretly lured there by Rom, who wants to trade Tarzan for rare diamonds (to get Belgium out of debt) with Djimon Hounsou, who plays a tribe leader seeking revenge on Tarzan for killing his son.
The Legend of Tarzan is a long way out of its depth tackling the issues of slave trading and colonial politics, no more evidenced than by its climax that suggests an ‘it all worked out in the end’ fate for Belgium’s involvement in the Congo that certainly did not play out in reality. The film cannot adequately deal with the topics it has dragged in to this jungle man story, frequently leaving them behind to hit the same hero’s journey beats as every other blockbuster. It also ultimately loses its nerve at not being another origin story. Tarzan’s attempts to rescue his wife from Rom are frequently halted while he remembers his backstory, a decision which slows the film down considerably and adds little to Tarzan’s character that viewers don’t already know, apart from the fact that he murdered Hounsou’s son in a fit of rage after the young man killed Tarzan’s gorilla mammy.
Though Tarzan probably could have been played by any of a number of Cut-From-Marble-Rejected-By-Marvel actors, Skargård at least has some degree of physical presence in the role. He’s bland, but that isn’t the worst sin, especially as there’s only so much nuance Tarzan can have at the end of the day. Much more disappointing is Jane, the kind of character that is surely a source of unending frustration for women in Hollywood. Robbie does as much as she can to inject some spirit into the performance, but it’s a futile struggle; Jane is the kind of heroine who insists that she isn’t a damsel in distress, ensuring that she absolutely will be a damsel in distress for the entire film. Tarzan doesn’t want her to come, he’s proven right almost instantly. One of the only things Waltz is given to do in the film is leer at her like he’s writing an article for Vanity Fair. Worse, her character is given a failed pregnancy, another heavy plot point the film cannot deal with at all that only exists to lay the film’s happy ending on even thicker. Hollywood films are still patting themselves on the back for having moved on from women screaming in peril and whistling in the kitchen to them screaming in peril and whistling in the kitchen but having a feisty attitude about it, but we’re a few decades on from Marion Ravenwood now and it isn’t really cutting it anymore. Meanwhile, Waltz and Jackson are in ‘sleepwalk until the cheque clears’ mode.
David Yates’ washed out, dour aesthetic is already an obstacle for dumb summer entertainment, piling slavery, murder and failed pregnancy on top of that is a weight that not even the mighty Tarzan is strong enough for. Attempting to balance exciting action, old school adventure and some enlightening historical context, The Legend of Tarzan instead offers unimaginative shaky cam, dated adventure and bungled historical context. Like the John Carter failure of a few years ago, this is a story that its creators didn’t know how to handle and its audience wasn’t interested in accepting. These characters’ time may simply have passed.