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Director David Yates, best known for helming the latter Harry Potter films, attempts to wave his magic wand over creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’ King of the Jungle in The Legend of Tarzan. Despite a few notable action sequences, impressive CGI, and gorgeous cinematography in places, this live-action interpretation of the classic Tarzan tale is rooted in convention and fails to reach any higher than its one-dimensional offering.
After his parents were shipwrecked and killed in the jungles of the African Congo, John Clayton III was raised from a child by a family of apes that shaped him into the legend that is Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård). During that upbringing Tarzan’s ape mother, who he called Kala, is killed by a young hunter a part of another tribe, which angers Tarzan to the point in which he kills the hunter. That action however unknowingly angers the tribal leader Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), as that hunter was his son.
So when envoy to King Leopold II of Belgium, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), is sent to secure the fabled diamonds of Opar to save a Belgium government on the verge of bankruptcy, Chief Mbonga intervenes but proposes an offer. The diamonds in exchange for Tarzan. Now living in England under the name of Lord Greystoke with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie), Clayton is convinced to accept an invitation from King Leopold to investigate the development of Congo when George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) informs him of suspicions that the Belgians are enslaving the Congolese population.
When John, Jane and Williams arrive in Congo and encounter a tribe they knew well when they lived there, they’re ambushed by Léon Rom and his mercenaries who are after Tarzan. After luckily escaping thanks to help from the tribe and Williams, John learns of his wife’s capture and must now embrace his wild side to save her and prevent Rom from gathering an army to enslave the whole of Congo.
On the surface this tale is as old as they come, saving a damsel in distress from the hands of a maniacal warlord. This is not necessarily a negative, but the film touches on deeper rooted issues such as slavery and the oppression of Congo during the late 1800’s without ever diving into them which is disappointing. It would have been intriguing to see Yates take Tarzan’s story and character, and tackle those aforementioned issues more directly, instead of falling back on the conventional formula of an action-romance film we’ve seen a dozen times over. Have Tarzan become the spearhead of a revolution against slavery and governmental oppression, and not just a handsome chap swinging from treetops to save the lovely blonde.
The film’s best moments are when John is seen internally wrestling with his primitive past that he has bottled up in exchange for his new home in England, whilst wife Jane wants to rekindle with that past and accompany her husband on the trip despite his pleadings not to. If Yates had taken that approach and ran with it further it would have offered up more character development. For instance depicting John blaming himself for the enslaving of the Congan people since his departure from the jungle, further fueling his fight against the totalitarian rule of the Belgiums. Instead, Tarzan is portrayed as a one dimensional character driven purely by his love for Jane, leaving actor Alexander Skarsgård nothing to do beyond looking physically empowering.
The plot struggled with historical turmoil and intrigue, and it was a shame to see the narrative thread of The Legend of Tarzan leave those stones unturned. Despite those issues, the film does a fine job of establishing Tarzan as one with the jungle, as he cuddles lions he knew since cubs and fights an ape he deemed a brother before that relationship was fractured after Tarzan’s departure. Audiences have to suspend their disbelief quite often, but there’s a sense that this man has a rich history with the jungle and its inhabitants. The same goes for Jane in a more endearing way, as she embraces friends of a tribe and rifles through her old home in the village where her father taught English.
Those types of reactions are brought to life through decent performances from both Skarsgård and Robbie. When those more insightful moments pass, however, their performances become very typical to the characters they are embodying, in the sense that Robbie is the damsel in distress and Skarsgård is the ripped guy that must save her. Christoph Waltz too leads a very cliche performance as the films antagonist that is not too dissimilar to his prior work such as Spectre, whilst Samuel L. Jackson is still the wise cracking comic he always is. It’s a respectable ensemble cast that is tied to their prior performances, much in the way the film is too shackled to conventional wisdom.
When push comes to shove and the film’s more pulsating moments kick in, they are a feast to the eyes. Whether that is a macho hand-to-hand brawl in the pouring rain between Tarzan and a load of tribesmen, or a high octane run through the treetops as the camera tracks Tarzan during a race to the sound of a screaming Jane. The action is choreographed well and the capturing of the lush African Congo jungle is gorgeous enough to warrant it being your desktop wallpaper, despite the majority of the film being shot in England. With the film’s obvious focus on capturing the wildlife of said jungle, it was also impressive to see the CGI old up against the likes of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
The Legend of Tarzan is far from legendary, but there is enjoyment to be found in its conventional and often one-dimensional offering. It fails to dive deeper into the historical themes that inhabit its beautiful yet tortured world. It also struggles to pit these famous characters against those issues, which is disappointing. However, for what the film is and set out to be, it succeeds at. The recreation of the African Congo jungle and its wildlife is an impressive sight, as are the film’s few action sequences, but this traditional action adventure romance is ultimately too rooted in convention for it to leave a lasting impression.
Images: Warner Bros.