Over the last two decades there have been some extremely successful reinventions of classic characters for the modern age: Zorro, Batman, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, etc. All of these stay true to the heart of what made the character great to begin with, but ground the character in a practical sensibility that make them relatable to today’s audience. I’m guessing this was the intent with Tarzan, the Lord of the Jungle, made famous through the stories of Edgar Rice Borroughs. Tarzan was a staple of early Hollywood, probably most famously played by Johnny Weissmuller, but with the exception of the Disney animated feature in the late 1990’s, no one has tried to bring Tarzan back to his big screen roots in a long time. After The Legend of Tarzan, I think it will probably be a long time before anyone else gives it another shot.
But before we get into the nuts and bolts of why this went flying off the tracks, let’s talk about Belgium. This is relevant, the film’s entire plot hinges on the basic premise that Belgium is pure evil. If you’re not acquainted, Belgium is a country in northwestern Europe, roughly the size of Maryland. It has the unfortunate position of being situated directly between France and Germany, thus whenever the Germans get an itch to go flatten Paris, Belgium is the most direct route. They’re also famous for their chocolates. Oh and slavery. Belgians have never met an African tribe they didn’t think would be put to better use mining diamonds or standing in front of actively firing weaponry. Now, if I told you that a tremendous part of the plot of The Legend of Tarzan was taken up by painstakingly explaining the Belgians presence in the Congo, the state of their monarch’s finances, and the atrocities they were willing to commit to balance their….WAFFLES, Belgians and waffles, can’t do without them….where was I before that. Totally blanked, but that’s ok because it’s really not worth trying to keep track of beyond noting that the personification of Belgian evil is Christoph Waltz, and he’s Belgian. And evil.
The Legend of Tarzan is a hot pot of mess. It’s poorly directed, which is a surprise since David Yates is usually a very steady hand on the wheel. The acting from Waltz, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson (he’s Tarzan’s American buddy there to keep an eye on the whole slavery rumor), and others is just weird to bizarre. There are so many different subplots flying out of left field and disappearing into the ether that you can’t focus on one for more than a solid 30 seconds before another one pops up like a two-hour game of “Whack a Subplot”. Robbie, who plays Jane, is given a lot of pluck and I am guessing that the aim was to avoid making her simply a damsel in distress (guess what she is for most of the film? No, not Belgian, but fine supposition). Then there is the dialogue which ranges from cringe-worthy to stupefying (did Jane just make a priest molestation joke to evil Belgian Waltz…..what the what?). Amongst all this madness, Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Tarzan with all the emotion of a fine plank of cedar stands out just because he’s not Belgian or acting like a loon (and he talks to animals and yodels in the jungle and STILL is the most normal human in this movie).
The film takes place years after Tarzan left the jungle, married Jane, and took up his father’s title as Lord Greystroke in England. But then a tidal wave of Belgian plot devices occur (I may have wandered out in search of some waffles for a bit) and he’s lured back to his old home in the Congo where he walks and talks and swings with the animals. This, by the way, is honestly the best part of the movie. Watching Tarzan interact with photorealistic CGI animals, and lead them against (wait for it) the Belgian army, is by far the most interesting part of the film. Probably because it actually focused on Tarzan. His youth is interspersed through the whole film in an inelegant and intrusive fashion that does nothing to endear you to Tarzan, or particularly entertain you. It’s mostly just another one of those subplots I previously mentioned (sans Belgians).
So is there any reason whatsoever to see this film? Well, that depends on 1) your inherent dislike of Belgium and 2) what kind of a fan of cinematography you are. While Tarzan fails on almost every level, the cinematography is absolutely stunning, Oscar-caliber camera work. The film looks gorgeous and features a wonderful score. Additionally, I was not being glib about Tarzan and the animals. The bits we get of him reconnecting with the creatures who raised him and rallying them against (yes brace yourself) the Belgians, are the bits where you see where this could have gone completely differently if the screenwriter hadn’t gotten a bad batch of chocolates at some point in their life.
Tarzan, to begin with, is a very hard character to make relevant to modern audiences. However, one of my favorite fictional characters is a billionaire who dresses like a six-foot bat and fights crime, so it CAN be done. It just takes a love of the source material, the cleverness to pick the bits that work for a modern audience, and to stay true to what made people love the character in the first place. None of that care is lavished on The Legend of Tarzan, so all you end up with is eye candy (which as far as I know is not made in Belgium).