The days of classic popcorn munching movies seem to be behind us, giving way to action extravaganzas and heavy-handed historical dramas. It’s arguably a hard line to tread, finding the necessary amount of action, drama, romance and comedy that made the genres 80's and 90's counterparts so rewarding. While Warner Bros new film The Legend of Tarzan (2016) doesn’t quite reach this, it is the closest we’ve seen in years. Delivering on its tagline ‘Human. Nature’, it is hard not to feel compelled by the greater moral plight of the film and despite being a complex CGI jumble, it must be commended on providing pure escapism fun.
The film deviates from the beloved Disney classic most viewers would know, instead following Tarzan’s (Alexander Skarsgard) journey back to the African Congo eight years after he has acclimatised to life in London as the Lord of Greystoke manor, John Clayton III. King Leopold of Belgium needs funds to finance his new army and so sends his confidant Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to acquire the diamonds of Opar. With the native tribes fiercely protecting the lands, Rom strikes a deal with their leader Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) to bring Tarzan to him so he might exact his revenge for the death of his son. Convinced by American freeman and human rights activist George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to help him obtain proof of the areas slavery, Tarzan heads back ‘home’ with wife Jane (Margot Robbie) in tow, unbeknownst to the set-up awaiting him by Rom. As the devilish villain kidnaps Jane, Tarzan sets aside his civility to get her back, becoming the King of the jungle once more.
Director David Yates infuses his piece with authenticity and atmosphere, the scope overflowing from the moment we set eyes on the mist-filled jungle. The soundtrack adds to this, the drums and chorus of voices building and accentuating the untameable setting. The action increases in scale and magnitude the further into the film we go, as Tarzan slowly loses himself to the jungle. Car chases might be cool, but The Legend of Tarzan reminds us that so are wildebeest stampedes through African towns. Sadly, cliché carves its way into the film at times though, especially as Tarzan’s renowned cry resonated through the third act. While he may be the legend of a ghost in the trees, in the age of Marvel and DC, a mortal man will never be quite as cool as superheroes.
Samuel L Jackson’s George Washington Williams, an American who fought in the civil war and the man who persuades Tarzan to head back to the Congo out of his desire to end slavery, is perhaps the best character in the film. While Alexander Skarsgard spends half the movie shirtless, delivering us one of the best bodies ever put to film, and Margot Robbie is completely enthralling as the ‘damsel in distress’ Jane, Jackson is the one that represents us all. He is the average guy who can’t keep up, the one who gets tired after running flat-track throughout the forest and the third wheel to the whole situation. He’s riveting, bringing his iconic quirky charm to what could easily have been a run-of-the-mill sidekick. In contrast, if any of the actors seem like they are suffering it would be Christoph Waltz, who plays his villain so two-dimensionally he could have fallen asleep half-way through and we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The Academy Award winner suffers from villain fatigue, having played a similar role in Spectre (2015), Water for Elephants (2011) and Inglorious Basterds (2009).
There are flaws to the film though, notably the heavy dependence on CGI that was clearly not the ‘all expenses paid’ version utilised in this year’s similarly themed The Jungle Book (2016). Instead, the film was shot almost entirely on a soundstage in England and despite cinematographer Henry Braham’s best efforts to intersperse these scenes with the real-life stunning scenery of Africa, we always feel somewhat disjointed. That being said, when Tarzan takes flight among the jungles vines, there is a grace and fluidity to his motions. He is pure, unadulterated, animalistic energy surging through the wild and that’s pretty special to see. There is a gravitas to this version that you don’t get from the camp and musically-infused predecessors and despite what critics have been saying it’s a fresh and fun change.
The film’s biggest victory is in the fact it dares to acknowledge so many crucial social issues. Colonialism and conservation ideals are abundant throughout, symbolised by a group of Africans chained at the neck and within the soulful connection between mythical man and brutish beast. Feminism and anti-greed sentiments are also paraded about, albeit to less effect. Such heavy topics have a trade-off however, with the ideals going over the heads of the many younger audience members who have been drawn to the film based off Disney’s 1999 production. There is a deeper and darker narrative here, which deserves a more mature audience and there’s nothing wrong with that. At its core, The Legend of Tarzan is a romance built upon the endearing relationship between the King of the Jungle and his American girl. And as Jane remarks, even an ordinary man can do extraordinary things for the one he loves.
Rating: 3.5 Shirtless Skarsgards out of 5
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