Review: 'The Legend Of Tarzan' swings for the fences but comes up short
When I’m planning to review a film, I try not to read any criticism of that film until after I’ve already organized my thoughts and written and published my own piece. I don’t like having anyone else’s take in my head as I’m writing, positive or negative. I don’t want to be put into a position where I’m either defending or attacking someone else’s opinion. I want my reviews to be my active thoughts, not a reactive response to something. In the case of The Legend Of Tarzan, though, they evidently gave the east coast a one-day head-start on the rest of us. Even though I was in the middle of my move into a new apartment on Wednesday, the day I was set to see the film, I saw enough headlines go by on social media to be able to tell that people did not care for this take on the Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp hero.
Consider me the weirdo on this one, then. I liked The Legend Of Tarzan. There are things I liked about it quite a bit, and there are some things I think they fumbled a bit, but overall? I think this is about as close to right as anyone’s going to get with a modern take on Tarzan, a property that becomes more and more difficult to adapt the further we get from the story’s pulp origins. When I talked to Shane Black recently about pulp, part of what we discussed is how people almost seem embarrassed by it when it’s done straight these days. It is absolutely a product of its time and the environment in which it was published, and it serves as a record of how things were much more than it offers up any kind of vision of how things could be.
The thing about Tarzan, though, is that it’s such an elastic idea, and every era has already reinvented Tarzan in ways that reflect all of the changes in society since the first stories were published. There’s no question that this new film has been refigured in a way that is meant to make Tarzan a hero we can feel good about in the year 2016, and for the most part, I think they’ve done a good job of imagining Tarzan through that prism. The screenplay is credited to Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, and they’ve made some big choices in the way they’ve handled things, drawing as much from the history of page-to-screen translations of Tarzan as they do on the actual source material itself. Much like Batman, the origin of Tarzan has been told so many times at this point and is so burned into our collection pop consciousness that you can do it in shorthand. Tarzan’s parents came to Africa. They died in the jungle. He was taken in by an ape mother and raised among the apes as one of them. This film actually begins long after Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) has discovered his own connection to “civilized” culture and moved back to England to accept his place as Lord John Clayton, and we see that he’s found a sort of peace there. Is he happy? We don’t spend long enough in England to know for sure, but clearly he’s only become partially civilized. There are parts of his personality that are still wild, and that’s part of the bond he has with Jane (Margot Robbie), his wife. She was also raised in Africa, with parents who were teachers, and she misses Africa even more overtly than he does. When the English government comes calling, it seems like a perfect opportunity. They want him to go tour the Congo to explore a financial partnership with King Leopold of Belgium, who controls the region.
Right away, it’s clear that colonialism is the real villain of this film, embodied by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who was an actual horrifying garbage person who actually did commit some massive atrocities in the Congo on behalf of Belgium. He was the head of the Force Publique army, making this a slice of alternative history every bit as pointed as Inglorious Basterds, also starring Waltz. This entire film is about Rom’s plan to create the Force Publique, which lasted for almost 80 years in reality until the Congo achieved its independence. Here, Tarzan is drawn into Rom’s plot, and it turns out to be a very, very poorly considered move on Rom’s part. Tarzan is not the only hero, though, and that’s where things get really weird. George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is in that initial meeting when the government asks Lord Clayton to go to Africa, and when he rejects the plea, Williams is the one who talks him into it. He tells him that he suspects King Leopold of a slave trade in the Congo, and he wants to find proof. In reality, Williams was the first person who called attention to the horrible human rights abuses in the Congo, writing and publishing an open letter that at least attempted to open the conversation about the overt wrongs being done in that region. Whether it was Cozad or Brewer or someone else who had the idea to fold these real-life characters into a Tarzan film, the end result is interesting because it uses history as a jumping off point, refusing to stick to the facts in the process.
Of all of the pulp heroes, Tarzan may be one of the most difficult to reboot precisely because of the uneasy race politics that have always been subtext to the material. One of the things I like about David Yates as a filmmaker (and which I guess is true of any filmmaker who I like) is his particular sense of taste. When adapting the Harry Potter books, I liked the choices he made about how to handle things, even things that had already been established by other filmmakers. Yates is not a short-attention-span Avid-spastic filmmaker who mistakes moving his camera constantly and cutting incessantly for creating a sense of action or urgency. He’s not afraid to linger on something, and I always get the sense that he cares about what he’s shooting. He finds plenty of great moments and lets them breathe, and he finds a way to balance the ridiculous and the awesome, an equal measure of which has always been part of the Tarzan story. What I liked most here was the very conscious way this film grapples with everything that makes people uneasy about telling Tarzan stories now, and I’m surprised to see people calling the film out for things that it addresses head-on. One of my favorite moments involves a quiet conversation between Williams and Tarzan as they start to uncover the extent of King Leopold’s plans for the slave trade inside the Congo. Williams speaks about the American West and America’s genocide of the Native Americans, and when he softly says, “I’m no better than those Belgians,” it doesn’t feel like an afterthought or a band-aid over the uncomfortable subtext of the original Burroughs stories. It feels like a conscious re-imagination, one in which Tarzan may play a role in the eventual liberation of the Congo, but he’s certainly not a one-man white savior.
Another thing that is key to the enduring appeal of the Tarzan stories is the fairly potent sexual fantasy, and anyone who doubts that as an integral part of the character’s ongoing place in the Hollywood firmament should go back and take a look at Tarzan And His Mate, one of the earliest in the Weissmuller series. That movie is just plain hot, and Maureen O’Sullivan is an absolute thunderbolt of carnal cute in the film. She and Weissmuller were both the pinnacle of pretty for that era, and there is no doubt as you watch that film that the main connection between those two is sexual. She represents everything he grew up without, and the same is true for him. She may civilize him by day, but by night, he allows her to indulge her wild side without shame or restriction. You don’t have to make a softcore porno in order to make the point, a la the Bo Derek Tarzan The Ape Man, where she seemed to have more sexual chemistry with an orangutan than she did with Miles O’Keefe. But if you’re making a Tarzan film, you can’t dodge that subtext entirely and make them sexless, and I think that’s the safe choice if you’re trying for that all-important PG-13 dollar. After all, if the MPAA has told us anything over the years, it is that mass murder and violence is perfectly acceptable for family audiences, but even the hint of sex is a scandal from which our youth must be protected. Both Margot Robbie and Alexander Skarsgard are, let’s be blunt, spectacularly pretty people, and from the very first time Jane kisses Tarzan in this film, their sexual chemistry is both casually off-hand and completely off the charts. There is a physicality to their connection that they express through tiny familiar gestures, and it makes it feel like they have a real connection, like there is a shared history there. By the time the film starts to wrap up and Tarzan reconnects with Jane by simply leaning into her, those gestures add up into a very real heat. It’s not the point of the movie, but it’s one of the many things that Yates gets right.
I think the film’s got one main flaw, and it’s a structural one. By the time Tarzan has shed all the vestiges of civilization and become full-fledged Tarzan again, he’s swinging from vines and fighting apes and beating entire tribes of warriors single-handed, and that’s all fun and exciting and well-staged. But it takes a good half the movie for him to really start to become that version of the character. I like it in theory: the more time he spends in Africa, the more his true nature comes out. But in practice, it leaves the movie feeling unbalanced, and I would imagine that will be more true on a second viewing because you know that you’re waiting for the things that are most enjoyable. Skarsgard has fun with some of the details of this Tarzan, like the way his bone structure in his hands shifted because of the way he was raised among the apes. Skarsgard’s performance is built on physical details, and it works because he’s so keenly aware of himself as a physical performer. When he is able to give himself over completely to being Tarzan, there’s a sense of freedom that kicks in and it is very appealing. He’s also ruthless, and I like that they get that side of him right. When Tarzan is kind, he is enormously kind, and he has empathy for every creature in the jungle, no matter how ferocious. I’ve read a few reviews that mock the film for having Tarzan literally speak to the animals and understand their speech in return, and I’m not sure what movie those people saw. That is not in this film. He has an inherent understanding of each different species and the way their social structures work, and so, yes, he is able to connect to lions or elephants or even crocodiles, but is he actually speaking to them? No. He is a gifted mimic of animal calls, and at one point, he uses mating calls to play a game with Jane. That is not the same as talking to animals, though, and the critics using that to beat the film up or make fun of it should spend more time actually watching the movie and less time thinking about how to make other critics laugh at their next screening.
Do I sound a bit defensive? I may be, but that’s because I have a keen appetite for pulp done without apology, and watching people reject The Legend Of Tarzan because it no longer feels like it has a place in pop culture makes me feel like we may never seen a real resurgence of the form. There is an earnest quality to pulp that is part of what I love, but it is that exact quality that makes pulp feel like it has no place in our post-modern winky winky world, where everything is ironically distanced from itself and everyone’s too hip to play things straight. The Legend Of Tarzan never once winks at the audience, and it refuses to be embarrassed about its own origins, and that may have doomed it with most modern audiences. But for anyone who is willing to embrace all the inherent contradictions that make up Tarzan, David Yates and company have made something that is often lovely, eventually thrilling, and even occasionally kind of arousing, and this pulp adventure should be seen in as big a theater as possible to fully enjoy what they’ve done.
The Legend Of Tarzan is in theaters now.