My Rating: 7 out of 10
Like many people my age, I remember watching the Disney version of the Tarzan story in theatres when I was a kid and being blown away by the story, which was one of the darker and more mature Disney films of the time. It was partially because of this fond memory of the 1999 iteration that I was concerned about The Legend of Tarzan, which could easily have fallen into the category of films that try to retell an old story in a modern way only to end up creating a boring mess of sloppily connected key scenes that audiences expect to see. Luckily, The Legend of Tarzan avoided this trap by focusing the plot on events that occur years after the Tarzan story that most of us remember. Important back stories and plot points are filled in through interactions between the characters and flashbacks. By making the film more of a sequel than a rehashed origin story, the filmmakers could focus on the story at hand and the characters instead of trying to recreate specific scenes in a specific way to appeal to old fans.
The story of Tarzan is that of a man who is raised by apes from infancy after his parents were found shipwrecked in the African jungle. However, The Legend of Tarzan is less about the ape man than about John Clayton III, the man who Tarzan is after his childhood and adolescence in Africa. The King of Belgium wishes for the widely known Tarzan to return to Africa in order to garner positive publicity for Belgium’s development of the Congo. Tarzan (played by Alexander Skarsgard) originally turns down the request, but is convinced to go by an American named George Washington Williams (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who believes the Belgians are utilizing slaves to build their railroads. Tarzan, having lived with the natives during his time in Africa decides to accept the invitation in order to check things out. Meanwhile, Leon Rom (played by Christoph Waltz), a scheming Belgian envoy, is tasked with procuring a legendary treasure trove of diamonds from a fierce African tribe who offer to exchange the rare stones for Tarzan.
Whereas the Tarzan most of us are familiar with is an uneducated wild man who wishes to be left alone in his jungle home, the Tarzan of this wishes to leave his past being and live a normal life in London with Jane. I thought this was a really interesting choice, but also helped to make Tarzan a more relatable character. The fact that the film also went into his back story with the natives after he was exiled by the apes helped the audience to better understand Tarzan and to further empathize with the natives that were being enslaved by the Belgian monarchy. To further elaborate on Tarzan’s back story, all the flashbacks were done in such a way that they added to the film and didn’t take the audience out of the experience. I was surprised by how much they could fit into less than two hours of screen time, but was glad they opted for a shorter film than a more drawn out one that could have become tedious. The filmmakers needed to present us with some information from the Tarzan story we all know, while also showing us elements that are distinct to the past of this specific telling. They did all this excellently.
I also really liked that Jane (played by Margot Robbie), who is captured for a good portion of this film by Rom, was not a damsel in distress, but was smart, tough, and sensible even in the most perilous circumstances. Tarzan originally wanted to leave her back at home in England, but allowed her to come with him since she insisted. The Jane of the Disney movie goes to live in Africa with Tarzan because she loves him so much, whereas in The Legend of Tarzan, Jane goes to live with him in Europe because she loves him so much. Africa is more of a home to her than England and her upbringing there is evident in the scenes were she is able to outsmart Rom and his men. Rom was also an excellent villain that was at once a scheming politician, refined gentleman, and a ruthless fighter who can hold his own with some powerful adversaries. I also liked that the filmmakers brought in the political elements since those were very much under the surface in the Disney film instead of in the foreground. Those elements gave the film more depth and made the story more realistic.
One thing I was definitely surprised by was how many kids there were in the theatre. I assume that a lot of parents just might not have known how adult this film was in comparison to the cartoon version of the 90s, but it is important to know that this was not a kid’s movie. There is a decent amount of language throughout the movie, as well as a number of brutal fight scenes. I do feel that the filmmakers were trying to walk the line in terms of picking up members of different audience groups in order to maximize profits, but even with the lack of onscreen blood or sex, The Legend of Tarzan is both a violent and sexual film that really earns its PG-13 rating. This aspect, as well as the overall tone, reminded me a lot of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. I really enjoyed that the film was darker and more adult, but, based on the number of families with young children leaving the theatre and parents covering their kids’ eyes, I would say that many parents did not.
The cinematography was gorgeous through the entirety of the movie and the actions scenes were all very exciting and immersive, though there was certainly a lot more talking than action. The acting was incredible as well. Samuel L. Jackson had some very powerful serious moments, but also provided a lot of comic relief as the one character in the main cast that was unaccustomed to witnessing the sorts of superhuman feats Tarzan could accomplish. I recommend seeing The Legend of Tarzan in theatres if you can if for no other reason than to see the beautiful shots on the big screen. While not the best film of 2016, it also was better than I had anticipated and I would definitely watch it again.