[WARNING – This review contains SPOILERS.]
Superhero fiction owes a debt to Edgar Rice Burroughs it has yet to fully repay. One of the greatest writers of his age, many of Burroughs’ creations had a hand in inspiring the first superheroes. Before Superman was leaping tall buildings in a single bound, John Carter was jumping through the skies above the Martian deserts with superhuman strength and speed. Lee Falk – creator of the first masked mystery man, The Phantom – freely admitted to drawing on Burroughs’ stories as inspiration in crafting “The Ghost Who Walks!” And while Burroughs was not the first to imagine feral children communicating with beasts, his Tarzan character was certainly the most successful of the lot.
Given that, it seems odd that in this age when every major superhero seems to be optioned for a film or television adaptation that Burroughs’ work has yet to find mainstream acclaim. There have been few attempts to adapt Burroughs work in recent years and even fewer attempts to remain true to the source material. The one exception to this was Disney’s John Carter, which – thanks to poor marketing – became one of the biggest bombs of 2012 despite elegantly adapting the original stories for a modern audience.
This may be where the rub lies for modern film studios. Burroughs’ work is full of action, romance and amazing visuals – all the things a modern blockbuster needs for mass appeal. Yet the stories are products of their time and while the original stories are surprisingly progressive (painting a dim view of Europe’s colonization of Africa), the fact remains that they are built around the concept of a white guy from a rich family proving better suited to life in the jungle than the natives.
Thankfully, The Legend Of Tarzan tries to avert these issues. It isn’t always successful but an honest attempt is made defy the standard genre tropes. The script by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer also takes two other unusual steps, setting the story firmly in the middle of Tarzan’s career as an adventurer and basing its plot on real historical events with real people among the cast of characters.
It is 1888 as the movie opens, and King Leopold II of Belgium is deeply in debt, due to his efforts to secure the newly acquired Congo Free State. His chief agent, Captain Leon Rom, has contrived a plan to pay the debts using diamonds taken from a local tribe. And the chieftain’s price for the diamonds? The head of his old enemy Tarzan.
An invitation is dispatched to Tarzan, who now goes by the name John Clayton III. Yet he has little interest in returning to Africa, despite his wife Jane’s desire to see the land where she grew up once again. It is not until he is approached by American envoy Dr. George Washington Williams regarding rumors of whole tribes being abducted as slave labor for King Leopold’s construction projects that Tarzan agrees to return. Naturally things are worse than the rumors indicated and John Clayton must once again become Tarzan in order to lead his people in saving their homeland.
The historical setting lends the story an increased level of credibility. And by setting the movie in the middle of Tarzan’s life, we avoid the need for a lengthy origin sequence beyond a few scattered flashbacks as Tarzan encounters familiar locations and the tribe Jane grew up with perform a song honoring Tarzan. The script also avoids the usual cliches associated with tales where a legendary hero comes out of retirement.
Jane Clayton proves somewhat more problematic as a character. Burroughs’ heroines frequently alternated between being capable adventurers and helpless maidens depending on the needs of the story and that’s the case here. While Jane is given ample opportunity to sass the villains and show that she’s no damsel in distress (indeed, she directly denies the label when ordered to scream to summon her husband), the fact remains that she has no function in the story other than being the hostage that spurs Tarzan into action.
Margot Robbie does a phenomenal job given what material she has to work with and proves a credible threat to the villains throughout. Despite spending most of the movie in some form of bondage, she still manages to kill one of her captors and only the threat of her native friends being killed if she is “less than ladylike” stay her hand. Yet she does nothing during the final battle except stand there, looking fearful for her husband’s safety and not doing a damn thing to help him!
Samuel L. Jackson’s role as Dr. George Washington Williams proves a distraction from the reality of the piece. And not just because it’s mother-loving Samuel L. Jackson in a Tarzan movie. One suspects the character was included purely so there would be someone for the American audiences to root for. Never mind that Jane is American (as she was in the original stories) and would be better suited to an active role in this story than an American diplomat.
Don’t get me wrong. Dr. George Washington Williams is a great man. And there’s a great movie to be made about a former mercenary turned preacher turned diplomat trying to make amends for his own misdeeds while expanding an empire. Unfortunately, only the barest of mentions is made to Doctor Washington’s past and motivations in trying to expose corruption in The Congo. His character’s primary purpose script-wise is acting as an audience surrogate, providing Tarzan and Jane someone to explain things to and staring in disbelief at all the things that require the audience to suspend all disbelief.
All that being said, Alexander Skarsgård proves to be a wonderful Tarzan. While lacking the physicality of many actors to play the role, Skarsgård captures the caged-animal aspect of the character perfectly. A tangible sense of raw menace is projected every moment Tarzan is on-screen, even when he’s drinking tea with his pinky out in fancy clothes. The character truly comes alive in the sequences in which Tarzan interacts with various wild animals, with Skarsgård perfectly mimicking a large cat rubbing up against a friend in one sequence where Tarzan meets some lions he once knew.
The direction by David Yates isn’t quite so consistent. As with Yates’ previous work on the final Harry Potter films, there is a lot of dodgy CGI amid some very good CGI. And one gets the feeling that the actors are delivering phenomenal performances independent of Yates’ contributions to the final work.
In the end, The Legend of Tarzan may be the most spiritually accurate Tarzan movie ever made. It is also an inconsistent and unevenly made film, despite some great performances and a daring script. I still enjoyed myself watching it, despite the flaws, and would recommend it to any fan of classic pulp fiction.