DIR: David Yates • WRI: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer • PRO: David Barron, Tony Ludwig, Jerry Weintraub • DOP: Henry Braham • ED: Mark Day • MUS: Rupert Gregson-Williams • DES: Stuart Craig • CAST: Margot Robbie, Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson
Following on the heels of the Jungle Book remake and throwing its release-date lot in with Spielberg’s BFG, this revisit to an equally beloved childhood character is in good company when it comes to the more serious end of the family movie genre. While animated flicks and new creations can rely on slapstick setups, ‘hilarious’ side-kick characters, modern-song medleys and loud, loud, loud colours, movies like these tend to carefully present old favourites in a more subtle package. The Legend of Tarzan, at its best, does exactly this – presenting a Sunday matinee movie full of good acting, a simple story, and blended CGI…with a calmness that comes with not having your senses assaulted by lurid colour and noise. Directed by David Yates who gave us the later, more adult, Harry Potter series of movies and who releases Fantastic Beasts later this year, it is a deeply serious attempt to make a modern version of the traditional all-rounder old-school family movie.
We begin our story in the late 1800’s with villainous Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) seeking the legendary diamonds of Opar on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium, to prevent bankruptcy and help fund the takeover of the Congolese people. Rom is evil as only the always-fantastic Waltz can be evil, never stooping to hyperbole, and played with a constant humanism that keeps his actions firmly in the real world. Meeting Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) after a massive loss of life to his own men, Rom is spared death and promised the diamonds on condition that he bring the Chief a gift – Tarzan, a man who was raised from a baby by apes in the jungles of the Congo.
Meanwhile, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) has been living in rainy England with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke – still struggling with the dichotomy of his personalities. He is convinced by American Civil War survivor George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson, quiet and controlled and NOT playing himself for once!) to take up an offer to visit the Congo, and seek the truth of Belgium’s colonial takeover. Skarsgård plays the role with subtlety, his fluid body language suggesting an animal nature rather than simply imitating their movements. He maintains a brooding quietness that reinforces the notion of John/Tarzan being an outsider in both stuffy England and wildest Africa – trying to find somewhere that his mixed identities can fit. His hulking mass (kudos to Skarsgård!) is evident even in the rigid clothes of Blighty – though, of course, it’s only when he gets to Africa that he truly lets Tarzan breathe, run, jump, bellow his iconic call and sail through the trees with the greatest of ease. Jane is also anxious to return to Africa – having grown up there herself, before their serendipitous meeting as the only two white people living in the area – and convinces John to bring her along. Once landed, they have brief moments of respite before Rom’s nefarious plans result in Jane’s kidnapping and the enslavement of their tribal friends.
The story, then, is basic Tarzan territory despite not being fully origin – though we do get flashbacks of his childhood – and is really a family adventure story with lessons to be learned; friendship, loyalty, anti-slavery ideals, respect for animals, strength of personal convictions, and a love of nature. Some fairly glaring colonial undertones, a lack of inventiveness, slightly sluggish pace – these are issues that plague any retelling of a white man returning as saviour to Africa, despite Tarzan’s iconic status in lore. Press weren’t treated to an IMAX 3D screening – though I can’t imagine it adds anything to what is, essentially, a quietly-paced film – so it’s hard to judge if it might make it more ‘blockbustery’, but as it stands it’s a reasonable addition to the beloved oeuvre. The movie’s more ponderous attempts to ask postcolonial questions and be more sensitive to the treatment of tribal communities in Africa is a welcome effort to at least tentatively modernise a story that often smacks of cultural appropriation.
Nothing ground-breaking to report, but The Legend of Tarzan is a solid ode to a character that continues to draw the imagination of children and filmmakers alike. Overall a perfectly fine family movie that trundles along at an even pace, and offers an oasis of calm in the barrage of over-hyped kids’ movies making the summer circuit.
12A (See IFCO for details)
The Legend of Tarzan is released 8th July 2016