By Preston Wilder
An opening caption speaks of Africa being ravaged by colonial powers. A 19th century Belgian expedition led by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, oozing silky villainy) strides through an absolutely gorgeous mountain landscape (apparently Gabon, though much of the film was shot on soundstages). Misty tendrils caress the valleys. Fearsome white-painted warriors emerge from the mist like wraiths, blocking the Belgians’ path. They stare at the soldiers, ranged across a peak like silent sentinels. ‘This is so great,’ I caught myself thinking. ‘This is so spectacular. If only it wasn’t a Tarzan movie’.
Tarzan is among the most durable movie characters; the first Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, starred in Tarzan of the Apes back in 1918 – yet incredibly, after 100 years of trying, the films remain synonymous with B-movie rubbish. Greystoke, in 1984, was the most conspicuous attempt to inject some serious-mindedness into the mix, but Greystoke was widely mocked and flopped at the box-office (admittedly it was nowhere near as much fun as Tarzan and His Mate, with its skinny-dipping Jane, from 50 years earlier). Now here comes The Legend of Tarzan – and in fact, despite the unimaginative title, we may have a winner after all those years of near-misses. This mega-budget Victorian adventure, directed by David Yates who made four Harry Potters, isn’t trash: it’s a proper movie with good pacing, superior performances and lavish production values. If this doesn’t make Tarzan respectable, Hollywood might as well forget the whole thing.
The film echoes Greystoke in depicting Tarzan’s double life, both king of the jungle and English aristo. He’s now a celebrity, an Earl with a past (like Dwayne Johnson in Hercules, he’s both Tarzan and ‘Tarzan’) – but is suddenly called back to his childhood home, joining an American named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) who wants to gather evidence against King Leopold of Belgium, a long-distance tyrant turning the natives into slaves.
Bringing in Leopold is a smart move, adding brand recognition for the more thoughtful viewer; Adam Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost has been one of the big non-fiction bestsellers of the past 15 years. Bringing in Jackson and Waltz from Django Unchained is another smart move, and indeed Jackson gets a very Tarantino moment when he purrs over an “1886 Maxim machine-gun” (you wait for him to add: “When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherf***er in the room”). This is a very modern Tarzan in other ways too, girded with fashionable guilt over the white man’s treatment of just about everybody: blacks, American Indians (not seen, but mentioned in passing) and of course women.
The revisionism gets a little silly. “I need you to scream for me,” says Leon to the captive Jane (Margot Robbie); “Like a damsel?” she replies contemptuously, and spits in his face. Later, she insults Leon with a reference to kiddy-fiddling priests which no-one, man or woman, would’ve made in 1890. Later still, she escapes from two guards and even head-butts one of them. It makes you wonder why Yates and Co. made a film set in the past if they’re that bothered by the thought of a passive heroine – though I guess having lived in the jungle might’ve given her superhero powers, as it did Tarzan (Alexander Sarsgard). “It changed the bone structure,” he informs us, running on all fours having left him with apelike hands which he uses to grab those handy vines. Tarzan has “become one” with animals, not their lord but their equal – so the animal-rights people are happy as well. Like I said, modern.
The look has been revised too – and the film’s visual palette isn’t totally balanced (there seems to be way too much yellow) but it does make for some beautiful images. The best is perhaps a flashback to Tarzan and Jane’s first meeting, when she spots something rustling in the jungle and goes to investigate: the image is flooded with light and Jane is surrounded by fronds and leaves in close-up, making it look like she’s walking through a near-abstract world of soft-focus whites and greens. Yates adds pleasing brushstrokes throughout, from a Tarzan-Jane conversation staged in the branches of a giant tree to a brief, irrelevant (but pretty) blue butterfly that alights on Jane’s shoulder after she’s taken captive.
The Legend of Tarzan does what it says on the box, and more. It’s the kind of jungle adventure where Tarzan treats a wound by using ants as stitches, making them grip the gash then cutting off the other end and eating it (they taste “like bacon”, apparently) – but it’s also smart enough to make you wonder if it’s a deliberate Nazi reference (from Cabaret) when nasty Leon says “Tomorrow belongs to me”. In other words it’s still a Tarzan movie, just materially enhanced. There’s a meta-moment near the end – kind of like when Ed Helms said “This vacation can stand on its own” in last year’s Vacation – when a rather strangulated howl comes from the jungle. What is that? “It’s Tarzan,” says Mr Rom. “But it sounded different than I thought. Better.” Still not as much fun as Tarzan and His Mate with its skinny-dipping Jane, though.
DIRECTED BY David Yates
STARRING Alexander Sarsgard, Christoph Waltz, Margot Robbie
US 2016 109 mins