Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Watching The Legend of Tarzan (2016) in theaters this weekend, I was struck with the nagging confirmation of a feeling I have felt growing for some time, but tried not to voice -- at least not often -- for fear of sounding like an old curmudgeon.

What is that thought?

Superhero franchises are killing the movies. 

Every studio in town views a famous long-lived pop culture property -- like Tarzan, for example -- not as an opportunity to tell a meaningful story, or to craft a fun, unique adventure. 

Rather, every such movie is now an opportunity to compete with Marvel, or DC, and create another superhero series.

Every such movie is now a major tent-pole under construction. Formula has replaced original thought.  Famous characters can now be cut-and-pasted into pre-existing superhero templates, regardless of their literary or film/TV source material.

As I hope my Tarzan week proved on the blog last week, the Tarzan character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs boasts a long and storied history both in literature and film. There are different kinds of stories the franchise can tell, from the plunder of the natural world (and Tarzan’s defense of it), to the exploration of forgotten “lost worlds.”

There was no reason why the new film had to merely be Spider-Man (2002) in the jungle, but that’s what the 2016 edition ultimately feels like; right down to the valedictory coda of a CGI Tarzan swinging from vines high over his (non-urban) jungle.

In eighty-something years of cinema, Tarzan films have never really had to “ape” (pardon the term) something else; something popular, to meet the approval of general audiences.

Until now.

This new film gets a lot right about the character and his world, yet for every notable triumph, there’s still the inescapable feel that Legend of Tarzan is a blockbuster cartoon (replete with CGI jungle animals) set firmly in the superhero mold. It’s all incredibly two-dimensional, just like most modern superhero films.

When compared with the humanity and sheer eroticism of the Weismuller/O’Sullivan pictures, or the dignity of Greystoke (1984), this generic, homogenized “superhero” retelling is a disappointment.

The Legend of Tarzan, for example, gives us the haunted, brooding protagonist of personal pain and angst, seeking to find his place and responsibility in the world. It also gives us his “origin” flashback, so we understand the source of his pain. 

And then the film sends the protagonist on a quest that concerns, not surprisingly, the vengeance trope.

Specifically, a villain called Chief M’Bonga (Djimon Hounsou) desires revenge against Tarzan for killing his son. This is actually a two-for-the-price-of-one revenge trope because Tarzan killed that young man out of revenge for a crime against his family.

Like so many superhero films, it’s all a big fat revenge circle, as if vengeance is the sole motivating force of the human race; heroes and villains alike.

The film also lurches between play-it-straight angst and self-reflexive humor, uncertain of how to translate Burroughs’ material to 2016. 

It settles on the simplest path, I guess.

The filmmakers made this movie, look, sound, move, and breathe just like every popular superhero film since the summer of 2008.

Eight years on, that template is old and tired. Much more tired than any of the Burroughs Tarzan stories, which imagine characters of myriad motivations and agendas, and worlds of wondrous imagination and potential. 

This Tarzan surely could have pumped new life into a story that has resonated in the culture for 104 years. 

Instead, The Legend of Tarzan just follows the pack. It’s not horrible -- and I hope I can enumerate why -- but it is sadly predictable and familiar.

Eight years after he left the jungle, John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) is invited to return to the Congo at the invitation of the Belgian King. 

An American diplomat, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is suspicious of the king’s motives and invitation, and asks Clayton -- also known as Tarzan -- to accept. He fears that the King is using slave labor, in violation of international accords and agreements.

Tarzan agrees, and his wife, Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) also wishes to join the expedition, and return to her childhood home.

In truth, the invitation is a ruse set up by the Belgian king’s liaison to Congo, Rom (Chrisophe Waltz).

He wants to possess the diamonds of Opar, but the leader of the people in that region, Chief M’Bonga (Honsou) refuses to permit the taking of the diamonds unless Tarzan is handed over to him for his vengeance.

Rom seeks to capture Tarzan, hand him over to M’Bonga, and acquire the diamonds for his king, whose empire is virtually bankrupt and therefore relying both on slave labor and mercenary armies.

Once in the Congo, Jane is captured by Rom, and Tarzan must team with Williams and re-acquaint himself with the ways of the wild -- and his Mangani family too – if he hopes to save his beloved life.

The Legend of Tarzan gets so much right about the Burroughs character and his universe, and I appreciate that fact. 

Here, for example, Jane is an American (as she was in the novels), not British.  And Tarzan is an educated, well-spoken man, not the clichéd “Me Tarzan, You Jane” savage popularized in the 1930s films. 

Similarly, this is the first Tarzan film that I can remember which actually names the Mangani, and notes that they are not mere gorillas…but something else.

In short, there’s an authentic and dedicated attempt to adapt Burroughs’ work in a faithful way.

Delightfully, the film also uses real historical people as characters in the drama.  Rom was a real personality, for instance, and so was George Washington Williams. 

Rom is widely believed to be the role model for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart for Darkness (1899) for example, and Christoph Waltz gives the movie’s best performance. Some of his throwaway touches (like one suggesting OCD), add remarkable layers to the despicable character.

I was lukewarm on Waltz’s Blofeld in SPECTRE (2015), but the actor veritably steals this film, making Rom a potent threat despite the fact that he is not physically-intimidating.

But it is actually the character of Williams who is treated in a mostly-historically-accurate fashion. Notation is made of Williams’ military service in the Civil War, in Mexico, and in the Indian territories.  And when the character references Williams’ familiarity with pain, he is no doubt referring to a spell in which Williams was badly wounded and hospitalized for an extended period. 

The historical figure, Williams, has basically been imported into a Tarzan story…and he fits, because of his efforts to end slavery in the Congo Free State.

Alas, the movie simultaneously sees fit to have Williams make comments about how his mission is “screwed” and how he is not about to “lick the nuts” of a dominant Mangani alpha ape. 

These moments stick out like a sore thumb, and take one right out of the film’s reality. They are pandering, unfortunate attempts to build relatability with a juvenile 21st century audience.

And therein lies the movie’s greatest problem.

On one hand, it works hard to be faithful both to the historical period (and the politics of the Congo Free State circa 1890) and the Tarzan mythos.

And on the other, The Legend of Tarzan wants to play the mythos in a tongue-and-cheek fashion.

Remember how Man of Steel (2013) didn’t even want to use the name “Superman” seriously, without cracking a smile?

The Legend of Tarzan is like that, only worse.

The movie makes self-aware jokes about the terminology “Me Tarzan, You Jane,” and even goes “meta” about Tarzan’s trademark jungle yell, noting that it doesn’t sound like Rom expected…but better. 

One on hand the movie is serious -- or superhero-dour as I call it -- about its world, and on the other, it wants to poke fun at it.

The only consistent approach the movie settles on is the desire for audiences to interpret it as a superhero origin/introduction story.

In terms of the characterizations, Skarsgard is fine as Tarzan, but generally unmemorable. The script requires Tarzan to be sad and emotionally removed for much of its running time, so he can rediscover himself in the jungle.  Even Tarzan’s sperm doesn’t work until he gets away from being Greystoke in England and back to being Tarzan in the jungle.

I’m not joking.

Margot Robbie’s Jane has pluck, but let’s just say she’s no Maureen O’Sullivan. Robbie doesn’t have the easy grace or charm of that still-remarkable interpretation.  That Jane chose the jungle, and loved that choice. This Jane has agency, but not at the level the character demonstrated in the 1930s, which says something, I suppose about how our entertainment has changed -- or degenerated -- in eighty years.  There’s no scene in this movie that can match the innocent eroticism of Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

Again, there are aspects of the film that I appreciate and admire.

I like that the 1930s theme of Africa’s exploitation by white civilization has been retained from the MGM pictures, and in historically accurate fashion, for the most part.  

I also appreciate the movie’s color palette, which actually has a thematic point.  In England (where Tarzan is cut off from himself) and in Opar (where M’Bonga has done the same thing, essentially), the color palette is dead and cold: a silvery, lifeless blue. 

But in the jungle, the color scheme is green and vivid; alive and magical.

I dislike, strongly, the use of CGI gorilla, elephants, lions, ostriches and other animals for the action scenes. These scenes are all “dead” in terms of the sense of menace or danger.  If you go back and watch the MGM Tarzan films of the 1930s, there was definitely some fakery like rear projection and stock footage, but there were also real stunts, where animals and human beings existed in the same frame, and in close proximity.  The animal scenes, like so many in this film, are cartoons that lack a sense of gravity and mass, and therefore reality.

Tarzan is a great character, finally, because he possesses so many contradictions. He is a man of the wild, and yet a man of great intelligence. He is a man who understands the law of the jungle, and yet can also be, notably, gentle (both with Jane, and with the animals he encounters).

But the superhero-dour template requires Tarzan to go through familiar beats. He is lost, then found. He is sad, then finds purpose in defeating the bad guys.

These beats are so well-trodden at this point, that Legend of Tarzan can’t really show audiences well the contradictions of the man. 

“Tarzan” is simply a well-known name to be fit into a formula, and made a new, moneymaking brand.
Just like every other modern superhero brand.

This Tarzan had the opportunity to recreate a long-beloved character for the 21st century.

But have no doubt, this Lord of the Jungle will remain lost in the pack. 


  1. "In eighty-something years of cinema, Tarzan films have never really had to “ape” (pardon the term) something else; something popular, to meet the approval of general audiences."

    I feel I have to disagree. One could argue that 1966's "Tarzan and the Valley of Gold" was very influenced by the James Bond craze -- an opening sequence full of psychedelic lights and imagery, a villain with a trademark method of assassination (explosive jewelry) and a strong "soldier" henchman very much like Oddjob.

  2. Great insights and analysis as always. I was hoping you would like the film more (strange how we root for our favorite critics to like certain films as much as we do).

    As someone who has read just about all of the Lancer editions published in the 70s (24 or so), I really appreciated the use of the original source material (as you seemed to as well). I would even argue that this film comes as close to a true ERB story as any Tarzan film adaption with its grand sense pulpy, romanticism.

    I see the whole superhero thing from a different perspective. To me, Tarzan was one the original superheroes and it is the comic books (and now the superhero movies) that have built on that. As presented by ERB in the originals, Tarzan was a larger than life character who sometimes shook people like a rag doll, and was certainly not above vengeance.

    I was okay with whole post-modern thing. I just think if you are going market to a mass, young audience, it is necessary, and for me at least, it worked. I loved all the performances and characters. And after seeing the film twice. I loved them even more.

    I know neither you or anyone else wants to hear this, but it has to be said. If you knew the full, (and very sad) back story about what happens to live animals used in entertainment, you might feel different about CGI animals. Plus, it is hypocritical to make a movie professing to respect and support animals and, wildlife, while exploiting and abusing them to make that movie.

    I think Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie had great chemistry. But I do wish the movie had given their relationship more screen time to breath. That seduction scene with the mating calls was very erotic, but then just ended way too quick.

    And I think that gets to the heart of what your criticism is about with this movie. Everything is a compromise. Everything has to be comported to fit into that Marvel/Superhero template. I guess I was able to get past that.

    As far as comparisons to past adaptions, "Tarzan and his Mate" will always be the high mark. There is nothing in here as good as the opening jungle stuff in "Greystoke" (before it went all Masterpiece Theater). But I would say that Legend is in the same class as some of the better Syd Weintraub produced "realistic" Tarzans, mainly starring Gordon Scott.

    In summary, "Legend" isn't "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" or "Mad Max: Fury Road". But I do think it's a great summer popcorn movie along the likes of "Jurassic World" or "The Force Awakens".

    Thanks for always as being the best (and only place) to get great, insightful reviews. I always learn something new reading one of your reviews.