I’m what one might call a bit of a Tarzan nut, in fact I’m a massive fan of most of the works by Edgar Rice Burroughs and it drives me crazy how often his works are mucked up. I’ve read and reviewed almost everything he’s written and have seen all the Tarzan movies outside a few of the silent era ones, and that is why I am completely shocked at how much I like this new animated Netflix series because they really play fast and loose with the Tarzan mythology. This series actually turns Tarzan into a superhero, with actual super powers, and yet it somehow works. That Avi Arad, former CEO of Marvel Studios, is the one to come up with this concept should make this decision more understandable.
People have been adapting Tarzan stories for almost a hundred years now and though none of them have been all that accurate to the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs they mostly hit all the necessary high points of his origin story, which is why I find this Netflix original series so intriguing as they make some serious and radical changes to the Tarzan story. This version of Tarzan does not take place in the early years of the 20th Century as it did in the books but is a modern updating of his tale, this of course isn’t the first time this has been done and not even the first time an updated Tarzan has appeared on television, but it also completely rewrites his origin story as well as just what kind of a hero Tarzan is.
No ship’s mutiny lands Tarzan’s parents in the darkest jungles of Africa this time but instead it’s a plane crash that kills the infant Tarzan’s parents, and though he is found and raised by the ape Kala, as he was in the books, this Tarzan was not born in Africa as his parents died in the crash so Tarzan was obviously born earlier. Stranger still is that Kala does not bring him back to her fellow apes but takes him to the nearest native village so the Shaman there can heal the injuries the little fellow had sustained during the crash. Lucky for the kid Doctor Porter (Paul Dobson) was also visiting this village at the time, he came to Africa to learn of the local medicines and lore to see if he could combine them with what modern medical science has come up with, and he does what he can to help the Shaman with the injured babe. The Shaman then mixes his potions with Porter’s medicines and they then coat the baby during a fire lit ceremony.
Come morning the Chief (Omari Newton) tells Porter that the child had died, but in fact the Shaman and the Chief’s son Muviro (Doron Bell) had slipped the baby out of the village and returned him to Kala. The Shaman explains to Muviro that, “Something changed when our medicines merged, they healed him but something else happened as well. He is still human but he is also more.” Porter is kept in the dark because knowledge of what Tarzan has become could not only be dangerous for him but for the village as well. It was at this point I actually got a bit worried. I was okay with the updating of the story but having Kala bringing Tarzan to a human village and then having said villagers give the baby back to an ape after a “magical/science cure” had healed him was just a little too different from the Tarzan I grew up with. They even screw up and have the Shaman name him Tarzan because he is a “Child of the Jungle” while any Tarzan fan worth his salt knows that Tarzan is ape language for “white skin.” Then we have the whole animal powers thing to contend with.
Tarzan in the books is a man in peak physical shape with incredible fighting agility, if to be compared to any superhero it’d be Captain America, but this take on the ape man is more in keeping with the superhero Animal Man from DC comics than it is with Tarzan. But despite the weirdness of these changes I pushed on and watched as the show gave us a young Tarzan being given lessons by Muviro, who has become like a big brother to the jungle boy, and then I couldn’t help but smile as we got to see Tarzan kicking the crap out of evil poachers who dare ply their trade in his jungle. This is the Tarzan I’m familiar, Lord of the Jungle and ass kicker of evil doers.
Note: In the books Muviro is as a sub-chief of the Waziri, a warrior tribe who kind of makeup Tarzan’s jungle entourage, and is one of Tarzan’s closest friends. This was a nice nod to the source material.
Things go great for a few years until Porter returns and an assistant of his accidentally captures footage of Tarzan swinging through the trees and then later he is recorded again by tourists operating a camera drone. This particular video goes viral and stories of a jungle boy begin to spread. The man behind the poaching wants this kid captured, his true motivations for this are not revealed until much later, but wanting to trap Tarzan is one thing but to actually catch him is another. More years pass and Porter makes another visit to the Wazuri village this time with his daughter Jane (Rebecca Shoichet), and when she gets lost in the jungle she is saved from becoming panther chow by Tarzan. This is when the show begins to fire on all cylinders.
This version of Jane is a complete delight. As an author Burroughs was a product of his time and thus his women characters were not always the strongest, in the books Jane was normally relegated to damsel in distress and only got to show off her own jungle skills in the book Tarzan’s Quest, but in this show Jane is pretty much Tarzan’s equal, minus the animal super powers that is. Another interesting and rather nice change is that Jane is of mixed heritage, her father a very British and very white doctor while her mother is an African-American movie star. The show never makes an issue of Jane’s racial diversity and instead focuses on how awesome she is. This version of Jane is smart, passionate, good in a fight, and whose gymnastics skills allow her to keep up with Tarzan while swinging through the jungle or running across the rooftops of London.
The meeting of Tarzan and Jane is also a perfect example of how this show gets the comic aspect just right, when she first encounters Tarzan she assumes he is an inarticulate jungle boy and thus we get a nod to the halting English of the Johnny Weissmuller/Maureen O’Sullivan Tarzan movies as she introduces herself to Tarzan with a clumsy “Me, Jane.” Now of course Muviro has schooled Tarzan since he was a little kid and so his English is close to perfect, but he still responds, “Me, Tarzan” and continues to play the dumb savage as a kind of running joke, and when Jane finds out she’s been had it’s a great character moment between the two that is both sweet and funny. The entire eight episode run of this season has a deft hand with both action and comedy with solid writing throughout, but it did take me a bit longer to get use to the CGI animation, it’s fine but doesn’t quite compare to the stuff we saw in Disney’s Legend of Tarzan cartoon.
Of course a big element of the Tarzan stories is missing here and that would be the love story between Tarzan and Jane. This series has them meet when they are in their teens, and a young Tarzan and Jane getting into some steamy jungle loving was not going to happen on what is primarily a kid’s show, but what we do get is an amazing friendship that one can see will eventually develop into something much deeper.
We may not get the classic love story but the show does provide a good amount of drama, when Tarzan is forced to run back and help Jane when she trips while the two are being chased by a helicopter he is netted and captured. Turns out the Earl of Greystoke had scene that youtube footage of the jungle boy and is sure that Tarzan is his grandson. He’d hired people to infiltrate Porter’s staff and to look for and retrieve Tarzan, but when the teen ape man is brought to a “civilization” that he wants no part of things get a bit tense.
Lucky for us Lord Greystoke isn’t the show’s villain, he had no idea that the people he’d hired would treat Tarzan like an animal, and he is able to get Tarzan to understand that though Kala is his mother he did have other parents and that Greystoke is Tarzan’s family as well. The jungle lad agrees to stay in London and attend private school, though he does wear the school uniform putting on shoes is out of the question, and this all provide us with some nice “fish out of water” humor, but it also allows him to reconnect with Jane who just so happens to have ended up enrolling at the same school. It’s a small world, roll with it.
Tarzan kind of blames Jane for that whole “being captured” thing but once the two bury the hatchet they become a dynamic duo of crime solving awesomeness, well as long as that crime involves the poaching and smuggling of animals or the sabotaging of the Lord Greystoke’s company. Mystery solving is what makes up the bulk of this season as Tarzan and Jane bounce back and forth between the urban jungle (where his skills translate well to parkour) and the jungles of Africa (where he surprisingly never calls for an elephant stampede), and allows us to watch the two of them fend off against countless balaclava wearing goons.
Who the mastermind behind all the nefarious goings is pretty obvious, and would doubtfully escape the deductions of anyone over the age of five, but that doesn’t stop the show from being insanely fun. The mysterious villain isn’t even the only conflict as Jane’s mother Angela (Marci T. House) shows up after inexplicably giving up a career as an international movie star to go into investigative journalism, and her first job is to bring down the Earl of Greystoke…for some reason. Sure the mastermind has been framing the Earl but she shows up at the first crime scene, a burning warehouse owned by Greystoke company, sporting an Anti-Lord Greystoke button. I’m not quite sure she understands how journalism works.
What would Tarzan’s early years have been like if he’d been found while still a teenager? That is an interesting idea to explore and they do it fairly good job with it despite some of the changes being odd to say the least, and I could have have done without the occasionally lame moments such Tarzan using his super powers to shame a jerk at school on the football field or Lord Greystoke giving Tarzan a cellphone without bothering to tell him what it is or how it works, but those missteps are overshadowed but many cool moments such as Tarzan wondering “Where are we?” and Jane pulling up Google Maps on her phone. Overall the show consists of some great story telling, has a good balance of comedy and action, manages to bring some fresh ideas to the mythos, and has an excellent cast of voice actors, all resulting in a Tarzan show worth checking out.