IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 110 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After being shipwrecked, John Clayton, his wife Alice, and his newborn son John Clayton III, are stranded in a tree house in the jungle of the African Congo. His wife eventually dies of natural causes, and John is killed by gorillas, who take the child and bring him up. Years later, he meets Jane Porter, and marries her before returning to England as Lord Greystoke. Meanwhile, the Congo has been divided up between Belgium and the United Kingdom. In response to heavy debt, King Leopold II of Belgium decides to extract the Congo’s rich mineral deposits, sending his envoy Léon Rom to secure the fabled diamonds of Opar. An expedition led by him is ambushed and massacred, with only Rom surviving. A tribal leader, Chief Mbonga, offers him the diamonds in exchange for Tarzan….
I think it’s a great shame that the Tarzan films aren’t shown every couple of years or so on TV like they were during much of my childhood. I guess it could because it’s considered [probably rightfully, which is sad] that kids won’t sit through really old movies – many of which are in black and white – and also that the films are racist, [which aside from odd moments is not at all the case, though maybe they are naïve]. Then again, we don’t see Edgar Rice Burroughs’s creation on our cinema screens very often either, so I was looking forward immensely to this new movie. After watching John Carter, which was also based on a Burroughs book, the thing that went through my mind was how great it would be if they revived Tarzan, and created a new franchise which would not only be faithful to Burroughs’s character but also have all the action and adventure to bring in the masses. Reading about how The Legend Of Tarzan has done mediocre box budget, therefore probably putting paid to the possibility of sequels, was almost heartbreaking to this fan of the Ape Man….until now I’ve actually seen the movie, a film I was expecting to defend but which turned out to be a messy, dour disappointment and to only occasionally deliver the entertainment value which should have resulted.
For some reason, the decision was made to tie the fantasy of Tarzan to real events, and to even have a real person in the film, the anti-slave activist George Washington Williams, but the inclusion of the latter doesn’t work at all with Samuel L. Jackson’s character with his modern lingo feeling like he’s dropped in straight from the 21st century and being, for the most part, an unnecessary addition. This may have been done to counter any accusations of racism, though unbelievably some are still complaining. It seems to be the idea of a white man becoming lord of the jungle which upsets them most but then these people would probably find the idea of a black Tarzan offensive too so you just can’t win with them. In fact, screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Breer go to considerable extremes to be politically correct, what with most of the white characters being evil, most of the black characters being good, and with even the black tribe in the film that seems to be a bit villainous being covered in white paint so they don’t actually look black.
What unbalances the film far more though is the way much of the story [which borrows a little from The Jewels Of Opar] is told. After some scene setting and the villainous Rom encountering Chief Mbonga, we go to England and see Tarzan, in the guise of Lord Greystoke, living with Jane in a large country mansion. Tarzan’s origins and romance with Jane are then shown in flashbacks throughout the movie, which robs us of much emotional involvement. Tarzan and Jane falling in love should take up a large portion of the story and be its heart, but here we have the two meeting in one brief scene that lasts a couple of minutes, then, after a present day scene, shown suddenly having sex the next. It actually feels for some of the time like you’re watching a sequel, with footage from its predeccessor cut in, rather than the first movie in a potential series. It does appear that a considerable amount of stuff, including an appearance by John Hurt as Tarzan’s father and, in the words of Margo Robbie [Jane], an “animalistic sex scene”, was cut, and maybe it’ll turn up in a Director’s Cut, though there would also need to be much re-organising of the material to substantially improve matters.
Even from the beginning, the tone and feel is quite serious and even gloomy, Warner Bros. obviously still thinking that the approach taken by Christopher Nolan for his Batman movies is appropriate for every other potential blockbuster. Even though we get a terribly shot massacre sequence right from the beginning, the way the tale is structured means that it moves very slowly at first, even though Tarzan and Jane return to Africa quite quickly. Tarzan is then kidnapped [in fact he’s often bested in this movie which can’t really work out how to portray him – the super strong and skilful person of the books or the man of more normal, realistic attributes of the majority of the films] by the dastardly Rom, who plans to sell him to Mbonga, who wants Tarzan dead for a reason you find out later, in return for the Jewels Of Opar [which end up barely figuring in the story]. He’s then rescued by Washington, but Rom has also captured Jane, and most of the rest of the movie is an extended chase through the jungle. We do get the action we want, and there are a few moments that provide the giddy sense of fun that one has a right to expect, like some vine swinging onto a train, though even these are often ruined by poor green screen.
In fact technically the film is a real mixed bag which is surprising considering the huge budget. Most of the CGI animals are decent, though not as good as the ones in the recent remake of The Jungle Book which is a far better film anyway, but it’s so obvious that characters are acting against CG backgrounds, which sometimes look incredibly blurry. By the time we get to an animal stampede, many of the shots looked so awful that I started longing for the days of stock footage from nature documentaries and back projection. It doesn’t help that director David Yates, of the last three Harry Potter films and clearly little more than a TV-level filmmaker who is totally out of his depth with the big movies that he’s being unaccountably given, stages the fights, which look like they’re missing shots anyway [frankly editor Mark Day does a poor job in most of the scenes that don’t involve considerable dialogue], with combinations of ‘shakycam’ and slow motion. Elsewhere his idea of style is to either shoot constantly into [CGI] sunlight from under trees – though this doesn’t make a visually unattractive film which obviously relies on a lot of digital colour manipulation, but which often overdoes it, any nicer to look at – or to constantly threaten that something with dramatic heft is about to happen but instead cut to a silhouette of someone approaching the camera in a flashback. Honestly, the latter seems to happen about twenty times! O how I wish that Stephen Sommers had been able to get his vision off the ground as it sounded like he had exactly the right approach for the material.
Alexander Skarsgard handles some of his earlier moments well where you can see the conflict between Greystoke and Tarzan, especially in a scene where he’s with a group of kids, but he ends up becoming a very bland Tarzan despite the commendable decision to let him speak properly. Christoph Waltz seems to be an autopilot and he needs to watch that he doesn’t get typecast as villains. Despite opening with the unmistakeable voice of Lebo M, Rupert Gregson-Williams’ s score piles on the tiresome devices from the Media Ventures school of film composing which we are provided with time and time again; kodo drums, chugga chugga strings, power chords, etc. It makes little real attempt to evoke the setting or provide some genuine emotion, and is little more than a dreary rehash of various Hans Zimmer tracks with no distinct personalityof its own. Overall The Legend Of Tarzan isn’t totally terrible but is still an example of considerable blown potential, though I will say that the person I saw it with, who isn’t as familiar with Tarzan as I am, enjoyed it far more than me….which probably means that those who are not Tarzan fans may get more from it than those who are. This is still a rather sloppily done film in many respects though. O well, maybe in a few decades time, they’re try again and get it right, and hopefully I’ll still be alive to see it.