Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: David Yates
Stars: Alexander Skarsgard, Antony Acheampong, Casper Crump, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Edward Apeagyei, Jim Broadbent, Margot Robbie, Mens-Sana Tamakloe, Osy Ikhile, Samuel L. Jackson, Sidney Ralitsoele
Released: July 6th, 2016
Say what you want, I certainly would have prior to walking into the new live-action adaptation about the lord of the apes, but The Legend of Tarzan is a welcome surprise in a sea of lackluster, would-be summer blockbusters. Taking keys from Chris Nolan and Sam Mendes in their grand but grounded takes on mythological heroes like Batman and Bond director David Yates (the last four Harry Potter films and this November’sFantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) has created a Tarzan film that is very much in line with the origin stories of these larger than life figures while simultaneously steeping itself in some of the politics of the time all the while remaining self-aware enough through the presence of one Samuel L. Jackson to remind us we shouldn’t take things too seriously as we’re still talking about a man who was raised by apes and travels by vine. In short, The Legend of Tarzan is kind of everything one could want out of a big-budget summer blockbuster as it features not a re-tread of the same story Disney animation told seventeen years ago, but more a re-structuring of the origin tale through a brand new adventure that lends the action some purpose and includes some unexpected weight in its story. Some will list this new incarnation of Tarzan as empty spectacle, but I’m hard pressed to understand the reasoning as not only does the screenplay by Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) feature some templates for what Yates orchestrates as pretty impressive action sequences without relying too heavily on visual effects, but it also features scenes of crisp dialogue where what could have easily been stock characters have real, intelligent conversations that not only move the plot forward, but acknowledge the larger world that their actions exist within and will ultimately effect. Maybe it is due to the lack of expectations when walking into the film, but it quickly proved to be more than another summer tentpole to come off the blockbuster conveyor belt. Bringing us into this world and to these characters we thought we knew there are added layers that enthrall. Becoming invested in these familiar names as played by a top notch cast we come to care about the somewhat complicated if not familiar plot that is still able to put just enough of a spin on what was expected that the reality of what we’ve received is so much more fulfilling than what I could have imagined prior to sitting down in the theater. In all honesty, I’m not sure one could make a better Tarzan movie than what we have here.
The year is 1890, despite the fact many of our characters talk and possess the sensibilities of people alive today, and Tarzan AKA John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) has acclimated to life in London. He now lives off his wealthy parent’s inheritance at Greystoke manner with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) who has become a school teacher of sorts like her father, but as these things go this type of calm and settled existence can only last for so long before the jungle calls its king home. In this case, it is more the king of Belgium as Tarzan is invited back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary for the House of Commons, but is unaware he is actually a pawn in the corrupt plan of Belgian Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz). Rom intends to secure the diamonds necessary to fund his army that he will use to enslave most of the country from a tribe led by Chief Mbonga (Djimon Honsou) that seeks revenge on Tarzan. Like I said, a somewhat convoluted set-up in order to simply get Tarzan and Jane back to the jungle, but fortunately Cozad and Brewer are smart enough to not only use this plotting as a means to restore the image audiences have in their mind of Tarzan (both literally and in the current pop culture landscape), but also to position the film in a way that it might comment on the inherent issues present in the fact Edgar Rice Burroughs made Africa’s favorite son a white man. Cozad and Brewer also understand that these characters need to acknowledge both the way in which society worked then with the conventions of now so that the films main characters don’t seem to be exploiting the native people of the Congo as much as Belgium is trying to occupy their country and exploit it economically. That the plot echoes this sentiment and image that Tarzan and Jane have to come to defy is an interesting approach and by throwing Sam Jackson’s George Washington Williams, a former union soldier fresh out of the civil war, on the side of Tarzan while allowing him to sniff out the deceit and greed he believes to be present in Rom’s plan the film somewhat leverages this idea of a white man coming in to save the African people. It is a rather odd issue for a film like The Legend of Tarzan to have to deal with, but that it chooses to in fact deal with it rather than push these complications and realities of the time gives the film a more meaningful leg to lean on as opposed to the inconsequential and empty spectacle I expected.
Though the narrative offers more oomph than the marketing may lead audiences to believe, there is a real need to talk about how visually arresting this film is. If you’ve seen any of the four Harry Potter films that Yates directed with something of an effortless yet supremely assured hand you’ll understand how The Legend of Tarzan can look as gorgeous as it does. From the moment the opening aerial shot guides us down through the mist-covered jungles of the Congo and reveals to us the sinister smile of Waltz in extreme close-up there is an appeal of epicness (think Tom Hooper mixed with Gore Verbinski) to the film. The immediate arrival of the heavily made-up tribe in which Honsou’s character leads only allows for more visually striking imagery before the film nicely sets up its title screen and retreats back to Tarzan’s aristocratic life in Victorian London. Yates also defines a particular visual style for different parts of the timeline included in the film. The flashbacks are imbued with a nostalgic tinge of yellow as if all occurred at magic hour while Yates hones his camera on small, intimate moments that not only convey the necessary point of providing the flashbacks, but elicit the type of feelings being felt by whichever character is reflecting at the given moment. Small moments such as focusing on the young Tarzan’s leg as he climbs onto his gorilla mother that illustrate how comfortable he’s become in his new setting while still taking place in the makeshift treehouse his human parent’s occupied hang in the mind. The same is true of the blue-hued scenes that take place at night where the script creates some genuinely tender moments between Tarzan and Jane that Yates relays visually in a way that exhibit the level of comfort and history the two characters have with one another rather than simply leaving it up to the audience to assume these characters love one another based solely on the lore. Undoubtedly elevated by this kind of high level directorial eye there are still a few moments within some of the action sequences, especially in the more iconic images of Tarzan swinging through the trees, that there is a clear reliance on CGI that is more glaring than it is when it comes to say, the animals. How a fight between Tarzan and his fully CG brother ape can look more authentic than Tarzan leading a tribe through the trees isn’t entirely clear, but more often than not The Legend of Tarzan is a visually striking film that doesn’t feel overly directed. Keeping a consistent tone and style within his visual storytelling the film succeeds in being more credible than and not nearly as cheesy as it could have been considering the subject matter.
In order to smooth over the cheesier and more sticky aspects of the story we have Sam Jackson’s character providing that comic relief. Maybe the most surprising aspect of the film, even more so than how good it actually is, is how funny it can be. Developing the characters further allows for the rapport between them to come off more natural and thus provide for some genuinely humorous moments between the titular king of the jungle and Jackson’s stubborn, but skilled sharp shooter. While Waltz doesn’t necessarily provide any comic relief he is more or less typecast as the traditional, menacing villain here in what could have quickly become little more than a stock character, but small touches such as his Madagascar spider silk rosary he uses as a weapon allow for that little extra depth that gives the audience a sense of where this guy came from and maybe what contributed to why he has become the way he is. The same is true of Robbie’s Jane who is no damsel, but finds herself in distressful situations that, despite her most valiant of efforts, still require a little added help. A pure dialogue scene between Waltz and Robbie is one of the more electric and intense of the entire film as they delicately dance around true intentions with analogies and flowery language. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the action scenes, a few of which really work-especially one that takes place on a train as well as the climactic sequence that doesn’t so much rely on another fight between two characters, but instead creates a situation that allows for the film to utilize Tarzan’s skillset. It should also be noted that Skarsgård delivers a fully formed person in the character of Tarzan rather than the object he is typically relegated to. As Tarzan, Skarsgård plays a man who has learned to hold back, but who has been coaxed into slowly letting those restraints drop off to once again embrace his more natural, animalistic tendencies. And so, though some may dismiss The Legend of Tarzan as light popcorn entertainment (and ultimately that’s all it can be if that’s all you desire) the film really feels as if it has a want to address bigger ideas dealing with the idea anyone can be an enemy from a certain perspective is commendable; that it somewhat succeeds in addressing such themes and conventions of the time only proves The Legend of Tarzan is worthy of your time and especially your eyeballs.
You can also now check out my new film review show called INITIAL REACTION. Look for a new episode each week. Here is our review of The Legend of Tarzan: