Recently I watched an old Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movie entitled “Tarzan Triumphs” (1943). Tarzan battles Nazis in that one, which makes it the rare Tarzan movie that is a war movie. “The Legend of Tarzan” can be deemed a war movie too, if you stretch the definition a bit. In this case, the apeman fights Belgian mercenaries. Before you say this is a step down from Nazis, the Belgians are led by Christopher Waltz. The movie was directed by David Yates, he of the last four Harry Potter movies and the Fantastic Beasts series, so you know there was no intention to make a retro Tarzan movie. In fact, it is quite the opposite of “Tarzan Triumphs”. For instance, the swinging Tarzan is CGI. However, that body of Alexander Skarsgard is the real deal, ladies. He trained and dieted for four months for the role. The first choice, Michael Phelps, would not have had to do that, but his hosting stint on Saturday Night Live ended that thought of stunt casting. Emma Stone was considered for the Jane role before Margot Robbie got it. Sorry fellas, Skarsgard is the only one who takes his shirt off. The screenplay started out being based on the Burrough’s books The Return of Tarzan and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. However, the final screenplay bore little resemblance to those novels. The film had a $180 million budget and made around $360 million worldwide, which in the wacky world of Hollywood accounting, was not enough to warrant a sequel. Let’s see if the movie itself warranted a sequel.
In 1884, at the Belgian Conference, the European powers divided up the Congo. King Leopold of Belgium claimed the Congo basin with its abundant ivory, minerals, and apes. Five years later, he was in debt and needed the legendary diamonds of Opar. He sends his sinister agent Leon Rom (Waltz) to get them. Rom and his mercenaries do the Tarzan movie trope of slaughtering natives, but since this is a 21st Century Tarzan movie, they get counter-slaughtered. Rom survives for plot purposes and makes a deal with the Opar chief. If Rom can seduce Tarzan to leave his cushy British life and get him back to Africa for a revenge killing, the diamonds are Belgium’s. It seems the chief’s son was killed by Tarzan so he wants payback. And the movie needs to get Skarsgard out of his clothes. (By the way, ladies, you can fast forward to the 1:10 mark, if that’s what you came for. Be aware, this Tarzan does not wear a loin cloth, but I don’t think you will be too disappointed. Do the words “eight pack abs” intrigue you?) The now totally civilized Lord Greystoke (he doesn’t grunt like in the movie “Greystoke”) is not falling for any free trip to Africa offer from the Belgians, but he does agree to accompany an American named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) in order to save the slaves. At this point the periodic flashbacks kick in. These pretty much conform to the basic Tarzan biography. The rest of the story does not. Tarzan brings Jane along because Victorian ladies always got their way, right? They get separated with Jane playing feisty damsel in distress (she’s captured twice!) and Tarzan (with help from his Azeem - Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves) swinging and slinging. Tarzan has to fight not only apes, but the natives. (Both these groups stand in for Native Americans, like in Avatar. To hammer the analogy in, Williams makes a point of mentioning his role in the conquest of the American West.) For a hero, Tarzan sure has a lot of enemies. This all culminates in the type of over the top set piece that you would expect from a 21st Century Tarzan movie. (Note the wildebeest charge straight out of Avatar.)
These days rebooting does not mean going back to the basics. It means reanimating Edgar Rice Burrough’s series and pumping it full of adrenaline. And shrinking the brain. This movie has more action and mayhem than five Weismuller movies combined. But that’s what audiences want, right? Few people today have seen even one of the old Tarzan movies. If they had, they would have demanded a Cheetah! In fact, there is little humor in this overly serious film. It’s kind of hard to be light with slavery. There is a wink-wink moment when Skarsgard does the Tarzan yell and Rom says: “It’s rather different than I thought.” Williams gets to say “Me Tarzan, you Jane” which is the first time that iconic line has been used in any Tarzan movie! The actors are fine and Skarsgard makes a good Tarzan. He certainly invested in the role and I’m guessing the ladies liked the choice. Waltz is continuing to work on getting typecast. He’s a suave Nazi, I mean Belgian. The movie throws in a more cartoonish villain in the mercenary leader and then doesn’t bother to flesh him out or give him a cheer-worthy death. The CGI is fine, especially for the apes. Tarzan’s fight with his “brother” is amazing. We have reached the point where Skarsgard did not have to swing on a vine. That was CGI. You wouldn’t know it, but the movie was filmed in England with only helicopter views of the gorgeous landscape of Gabon. Unfortunately, the availability of CGI encourages directors to have silly, unrealistic set pieces like what swamps the movie at the end.
“The Legend of Tarzan” was not a misfire. It is better than the last attempt to revive the series – 1984’s “Greystoke”. The problem is that it is not as good as the better Weismuller entries. More is not better. Our modern penchant for adding more and more action scenes that defy reality and then topping them off with a showstopping and brain cell reducing set piece results in a movie that made $360 million, but barely turned a profit. Considering the glut of superhero movies, it is hard to see Tarzan becoming a franchise. Burrough’s novels might be too intellectual for today’s comic book weaned audiences. When you aim your Tarzan movie at a comic book audience, you lose the quaint childlike wonder of the old Tarzan movies. But no studio is going to make a movie like that, so watch one of the Weismuller movies. Johnny didn’t have eight pack abs, but he did his own swinging and swimming. And he had Cheetah.
GRADE = C+