Lee delves into 2016’s “The Legend of Tarzan” with this short essay exploring the many decisions of the movie. Contains some spoilers; don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t bother saving yourself. You need investment for details to be spoiled.
The ‘retelling’ nature of stories is a key element to what makes them such an astoundingly versatile invention. Tales can be reworked and reappropriated to encompass many themes and messages, and the ‘remake’ culture of modern cinema is just the next stage in humanity’s evolving relationship with storytelling. Look at any traditional folk story in almost any culture; chances are the version you hear today was not the version that was originally told. The next generation take the characters or settings or themes and reassign or reinvent them as they deem necessary.
And thus, modern culture returns to the mythos of Tarzan, King of the Apes. A fairly modern character by most standards, not much older than your typical comic superhero, but grounded in an idea of the feral animal-man that has existed since time immemorial. Films have used him as a contrast of modern man, a window into man’s natural essence and as a pulp action hero. “The Legend of Tarzan” looks to reconcile all these traits into a single narrative, while also being a retrospective of the real-world atrocities of the Congo Free State under King of the Belgian’s Leopold II. Wrap your head around that.
The biggest issue here (and it should come as no surprise given the previous paragraph) is the tone. At once, “Legend of Tarzan” is a pulp action story following a herculean monkey man on an adventure to save his wife and local villagers from a cartoon diamond trader, an insight-toting story about finding your place to belong, a frank look at a relationship torn by necessity, an anthropological think-piece on the native warring tribes in the Congo and a somewhat semi-biographical account of George Washington Williams’ historic journey to the Congo Free State to determine if slavery was being employed by Leopold’s forces; therein becoming a damning account of the entire ordeal and something of a comparison essay on that event with the American Civil War.
The clash of these stories leads to a bizarre tone in which Williams pleads with fictional Tarzan to take an expedition to the Congo, not knowing they are walking into an ambush by world’s worst kidnapper Christoph Waltz so that a diamond-hording tribesman could kill Tarzan for a genuinely emotional issue that entangles the two from the past. Also Tarzan needs to use his animal powers to free the slaves and stop Leopold’s army reaching the Congo, and Williams uses a Gatling gun to blow up a steamboat.
The difficulty is that this incredulous mash-up should have made for something of a pastiche, a critical fiction under guise as a straight-forward by-the-numbers action movie. Instead, it’s a plodding, slow affair treating itself with quiet dignity and poise. Tarzan beats up a train full of people (no hyperbole) in what is a pretty great action scene, including the punching of one man through the metal hull. Williams and Tarzan play buddy-buddy, hey you owe me one, etc. One time, Tarzan almost cons Williams into kissing a Gorilla’s balls as a sign of reverence. Then we get a quiet reflection from Samuel L. Jackson on the atrocities of the Civil War and the pride Williams took in being a part in it, and a noble speech on the historical little man from Waltz. Whiplash doesn’t quite cover it.
However, nowhere is this clash more harrowing than in the exploration of Jane Porter. We find very, very early on in the film that Porter has had a miscarriage, and now yearns for a return to Africa where her and Tarzan used to be so much more in love. She then gets passed back and forth between sex object with no dialogue and damsel in distress quietly waiting for her man. At the end of the movie, she gets that child she wanted, thanks to the spirit of adventure(?). Her arc is so terrible, so outdated, so embarrassingly tone-deaf to the emotional trauma that Jane could be experiencing from her miscarriage that it undermines every ‘tough woman’ moment and scene she appears in, for fear it gets worse.
Direction-wise, it’s a grab bag of exceptionally beautiful panoramic shots and competent action cinematography, meshed with some experimental angles that occasionally just do not hit the mark. An example of this comes in the form of an overhead shot that is trying to express both the height of the various branches the characters are travelling along as well as the labyrinthine layout of the routes, which unfortunately ends up looking like a tube map being traversed by adventurous bobble-heads. Long, vacant stares are the language of the day in an attempt to lend gravitas to emotions that often just aren’t there. Between flashbacks we could have done entirely without and stilted exposition throughout the dialogue, the film becomes less grand and weighted and more dull, long and terse.
There are positives, however. Between the madness, character performances are relatively well-done, and those who aren’t really paying attention might find the action pleasantly distracting and the character dialogue wry and light-hearted. And while a Tarzan film should be the last place we should be trying to make social statements out of the world’s historical wrongs, the heft with which it presents some of these moments, such as Williams presenting his report on the Congo to the British, should raise enough of an eyebrow to have people questioning whether some of this actually happened. Also, the animals do look good and the gorillas are often genuinely terrifying.
Those paying attention however will find nothing but a dry, dull attempt to try and bring Tarzan into relevancy with an incredibly poor outlook on women and a sometimes laughably bad clash of tones. Tarzan: Retold! “Heart of Darkness”, this ain’t.