‘I’ ON CULTURE
Those who hoped the new Legend of Tarzan film would be exciting and fun are doomed to disappointment. While not as bad as last week’s excruciating Independence Day sequel, almost nothing really works in this umpteenth remake of the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp fiction story of a boy raised by apes. This film, like the 30-year-old Greystoke, spends most of the film with Tarzan as a grown, very English, man. The early movie versions had fun with the boy learning about civilization. Here, that part almost disappears.
The whole storyline has long been condemned as racist. After all, you have the “King of the Jungle” as a white man while the natives generally seem helpless. This film pushes that envelope even more. John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke, is urged to return to the jungle… the Belgian Congo, to rescue mistreated natives. That part, at least, has validity. The Belgians were by a large mark the absolutely worst colonialists. And in the 19th century, they were truly horrific.
Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) does not want to return to Africa (“It’s hot,” he explained) but does because a freed American slave named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) wants him to prevent King Leopold of Belgium from selling more slaves (never mind that it’s after the Civil War and chattel slavery was essentially illegal almost everywhere) and British businessmen want more leverage. Clayton’s wife (Jane, who else, played by Margot Robbie) is feisty and insists she should join them to help. At that point, you know that she will undoubtedly wind up a hostage.
Once in Africa, Clayton rips off his shirt (and he is really buff, despite the fact that there were no real gyms back in those days) and swings from trees and even fights a gorilla. In real life, of course, a small orangutan is far stronger than a man, but he can match up to an 800-pound ape. He sniffs some lions… somehow they are supposed to remember him, I guess, although the chances of their ever having met him are close to zero.
Soon after, Jane is kidnapped by the evil Belgian Colonel Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) who has promised Tarzan to a group of natives who support him. Tarzan fights him, and if you have not figured out what happens, you have managed to miss hundreds of movies.
The racism is rampant throughout. The natives are either evil and not wildly competent or totally incompetent, as the great white hero battles against the great white villain over their fate. By the way, all of the animals are computer-generated images, and, I would guess, so are many of the stunts. That weakens them; somehow things do not seem real. Skarsgård is not an ideal Tarzan. He is far too effete beforehand; that makes his jungle doings seem not quite real. Jackson has played the same part so often that he could do this one in his sleep. There’s very little excitement.
Robbie is a stunning beauty, but she comes across as really pallid. The script suggests she is a “modern woman,” but she gets no chance to do anything really bold and seems at time to be valued mostly for the heir she might provide. Her biggest scenes are not the love scenes; Skarsgård has greater chemistry with the computer-generated animals. But she is expected to show her real fire when answering Rom. There her lines really go nowhere. Waltz has also played the mild-mannered, fun-loving villain rather too often, but he is properly acerbic. The computer-generated animals gave the best performances.
Tarzan has not been revived much in recent years, and it is clear to see why. It might have been far more interesting to do a film where the black man, Williams, brings over a group of freed slaves to do some fighting and gets a chance to kick some imperialist butt. That would have been a really fun movie. Imagine Halle Berry captured by Rom and then watching her kick him around a room!
Instead we have a century-old fantasy that lacks charm and grace. Skip this one. Finding Dory is more realistic.