The Legend of Tarzan is a dysfunctional film.
It is an interesting film in many ways, eschewing a lot of the conventional choices when it comes to adapting the Lord of the Jungle for the silver screen. There are a lot of reasons why this adaptation might want to steer clear of familiar trappings like the origin story or opt for an unconventional starting point, and the result is one of the most intriguing of the year’s big blockbusters. The Legend of Tarzan never follows the path of least resistance, and the resulting film is more fascinating for that.
It is also a lot less satisfying. Tarzan is an archetypal character. Many of the character’s trappings linger in popular memory. Even people who have never seen a Tarzan film will recognise the character’s battle cry. The loincloth is just as iconic as Superman’s red underwear. There are certain expectations in a Tarzan adaptation. Defying many of those choices is a bold storytelling decision, but that decision creates an absence at the heart of the film. Director David Yates and star Alexander Skarsgård never manage to fill that void.
The result is a film that is fun to puzzle out, but not entirely engaging on its own terms. Characters repeatedly acknowledge “the Legend of Tarzan”, whether sketched on posters or memorialised in song. However, the film spends so much of its first half picking apart the legend that it struggles to put it back together at the climax.
As with his close literary relative John Carter, Tarzan is a somewhat problematic character. Created by pulp author Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan was very much rooted in colonial stereotypes. He was the white child who was raised by gorillas and became an almost bestial hero capable of impossible feats. The character reflected a contemporary fascination with the continent of Africa, back when it was still socially acceptable to refer to it as “the Dark Continent.” The character thrived on the contrast with the more “civilised” settlers.
That is a lot of baggage with the basic premise, even before getting into the particulars of specific stories. This creates a clear issue when it comes to adapting the character for the twenty-first century. It is to the credit of writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer that so much of The Legend of Tarzan is dedicated to avoiding and undercutting the colonial readings of the text. Even when the script delves into issues related to European colonialism, it is careful to paint Tarzan as an enabler rather than as a stock white saviour.
This care and attention is obvious from the opening scenes. Introductory text contextualises The Legend of Tarzan by reference to the infamously brutal Belgian colonisation of the Congo. Quite pointedly, the text on screen opts to place the action in “The African Congo” rather than “The Belgian Congo.” The heavy militarised European settlers are not portrayed as an unstoppable force, but as a pathetic and desperate rabble. The balance of power in The Legend of Tarzan is consciously not weighted towards the colonising forces.
Indeed, one of the movie’s stronger visual motifs is the recurring use of a set of rosary beads as a weapon by the villainous Leon Rom. It is an effective metaphor that skilfully demonstrates that the application of force by colonising powers does not always come at the end of a rifle barrel. Leon Rom’s use of the beads is one of the film’s more memorable visual elements and also one of the smartest touches in the script. It is a shame that nothing else in the film really measures up.
There are other creative decisions that are cleverly designed to downplay the more problematic elements of the source material. Jane is no longer a young British woman marooned on the coast of an alien continent, she is instead integrated into a local community when she first encounters Tarzan. Although travelling with an armed force, Rom is consistently portrayed as unready for the challenges posed by the Congo. The member of the primary cast who is least familiar with Africa is the United States envoy George Washington Williams, played by Samuel L. Jackson.
These are all nice touches, playing with the audience’s expectations when it comes to a film featuring Tarzan. This is a very good idea on its own terms, but it causes problems when coupled with the decision to skip the origin story. Skipping the origin story is a good idea on its own terms as well. Everybody knows the basic outline of Tarzan’s origin: he was an abandoned baby raised by apes and subsequently reunited through humanity through Jane, who then struggles to integrate into his “home” culture. Audiences have seen dozens of variations on that story.
The Legend of Tarzan initially opts to bypass all of this to focus on Tarzan’s life on returning home. The Legend of Tarzan introduces Tarzan sipping a cup of tea while being addressed by the British Prime Minister as “the Lord of Greystoke.” The implication is that the film has immediately skipped the part of the story that everybody knows. Instead, it is positioned so to dynamically reverse the traditional Tarzan narrative. This is not a story about Tarzan leaving the jungle to rejoin so-called civilisation. This is about Tarzan going home.
On paper, this is a genius ideas. However, a number of problems present themselves. Most obviously, The Legend of Tarzan tries to have its cake and eat it. Although the film bypasses the traditional origin story, it still hinges on a whole host of elements from the character’s past. As a result, the film is peppered with flashbacks to the character’s early days. These flashbacks serve to provide exposition and info-dumps, some of which can be inferred and some of which grind the story to a halt.
For example, a significant story thread in The Legend of Tarzan hinges on Chief Mbonga swearing vengeance against Tarzan for some past wrong. For the first half of the film, this is treated as a big mystery. Jane mentions that Tarzan can barely bring himself to say the name “Mbonga”, while Rom admits that he has no idea where this grudge comes from. About half-way through the film, Jane rather bluntly explains the basis of the grudge. It is fairly straightforward, and would have made sense to incorporate earlier. At the three-quarter mark, there is a flashback.
The result is that the dynamic between Tarzan and Mbonga never feels developed or explored. Mbonga never develops as a character, because he is entirely absent from the narrative at the points when the characters matter-of-factly explain his motivation and when the film actually shows his motivation. There is no emotional edge to their confrontation, because Mbonga never feels like a character outside of his impressive introduction in the teaser before the title card. This is just one example.
The other big issue is that so many of these flashbacks are unnecessary. Beginning with Tarzan having reclaimed his title infers that the audience knows about the whole “ape man” thing, so showing it wastes precious time. Starting from a point where Tarzan and Jane are together accepts that the audience is aware of a long-standing romantic relationship between Tarzan and Jane. Going back and showing their first encounter kills the momentum of the narrative, particularly when the biggest innovation to the story could be handled in a throwaway line of dialogue.
There is also a sense that The Legend of Tarzan works a little too heavily to deconstruct its lead character. Early in the film, it is suggested that the romance between Tarzan and Jane is faltering, in no small part due to a miscarriage. That is a fairly bleak starting point for a film about a man who swings through the jungle on vines. When the couple do arrive in the Congo, the first action scene renders Tarzan largely impotent, leading to a substantial failure he must subsequently redeem.
When this story is juxtaposed with the origin flashbacks, it feels like the film is working at cross purposes; it is both building up and breaking down the character at the same time. The Legend of Tarzan waits until almost an hour into the film to have Tarzan strip down to the iconic loincloth, which seems far too long. The posters and trailers are saturated with images of Skarsgård’s perfectly toned physique. Skarsgård’s body is a thing of beauty, and more stunning than any of the computer-generated effects. Hiding it for so long seems self-defeating.
Perhaps there is a hint of embarrassment underpinning all of this. Tarzan’s iconic war cry does make a pivotal appearance at a couple of points in the story, but the film stops short of allowing Skarsgård the chance to yodel on camera. Although the actor (and his stunt double and computer-generated doppelganger) might swing from vines, it feels like The Legend of Tarzan declines to offer Alexander Skarsgård any truly iconic moments. There is no point at which the film seems to stop and declare, “Yep. This is Tarzan.”
The film’s special effects are also somewhat disappointing. Director David Yates and cinematographer Henry Braham do an excellent job at creating effective setting and capturing tone. The jungles of the Congo seem mysterious and menacing, home to all sorts of wonders. However, the film struggles when it comes to the big action set pieces, particularly those hinging on computer generated imagery. At one point during a tense stand-off, the human characters seem to be oblivious to some of the computer generated gorillas in their midst.
The human characters seldom do much better. The Legend of Tarzan seems so confused as to whether it is doing a straight-up (but non-linear) Tarzan story or a self-aware deconstruction that it loses focus of its cast. Alexander Skarsgård and Margot Robbie are grand, even if the film never quite affords them their big moments. Samuel L. Jackson and Djimon Hounsou are very much supporting players, even if both do good work. Christoph Waltz is suitably slimy and menacing, even if his character’s most memorable trait is a set of rosary beads.
The film also suffers from a rather greyed out and desaturated look. This works reasonably well during the tense suspense sequences, as characters navigate through mist and towards danger. However, it also strips a lot of the fun out of the adventuring. The sterile and muted colours of the Greystoke Estate should surely contrast with the bright and vibrant colours of the Congo, but it occasionally feels like the jungle is nothing but ominous fog and lurking danger. It seems odd that Jane should want to return so eagerly, and that Tarzan should feel so comfortable there.
It is a shame, because there are a lot of interesting elements here. The Legend of Tarzan is quite pointedly interested in engaging with the character’s colonial legacy, and its strongest moments are rooted in that irony and awareness. Early on in the film, the British Prime Minister patronising pauses his talk to explain the finer points of the African situation to Tarzan, a man who actually grew up on the continent. In a quiet moment, Williams reflects on how the Union’s victory in the American Civil War did mark the end of systemic racial oppression in the country.
These are delightful moments that belong in a better film. The Legend of Tarzan is a film that is more interesting than it is successful, more intriguing than it is satisfying.