In this movie Tarzan has is ass handed to him by an ape. Are you bloody kidding me, how can you put that in a Tarzan movie? That’s a perfect case of defamation of character if ever I heard it. For a good portion of this movie I was letting slide some of the strange changes director David Yates made concerning the world’s most famous jungle hero, but when Tarzan got soundly beaten by an ape I was enraged. Not once in the twenty-four books by Edgar Rice Burroughs did this happen, but for some reason, Yates likes to see Tarzan lose in several of the fights he gets into. Deep Breaths That may have sounded a tad harsh, and I didn’t hate this film, I just found that the changes made from the books ranged from odd to downright bizarre.
Now I’m a Tarzan Superfan so some of the problems I had with this film may not bother you at all, so with this review, I will try and remain as objective as possible, but I will focus on many of the departures from the source material, so consider yourself forewarned.
The movie opens with the villainous Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) leading a group of mercenaries to the mysterious city of Opar. Turns out that Belgium’s King Leopold II has been taking control of the African Congo and is attempting to exploit its rich resources. Unfortunately, he’s kind of run low on funds for his operating costs so King Leopold has sent Rom to acquire the diamonds that Opar is rumoured to possess. As premises go that’s a pretty good one for a Tarzan movie, because of course Tarzan is going to hear about this, and when he discovers that Leopold has been enslaving most of the locals to get what he needs you can guarantee that there will be some jungle ass-whooping in the future.
We do eventually get some of that ass-whooping but it takes a really long time for that to happen. David Yates kind of falls into the same trap that director Hugh Hudson had with Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, and that is taking what is basically a pulp adventure story and then removing the high adventure and replacing it with talky-drama. When the Lost City of Opar was mentioned I became excited, but when all we got to see of it was a CGI rock quarry that made the Doctor Who locations look impressive I began to worry. In the books, Opar was a lost outpost of Atlantis, ruled by a gorgeous high priestess and populated by half-man/half-ape warriors and priests, but in this movie, it’s just a tribe of local natives that look like extras from the Bo Derek Tarzan of the Apes movie. Why name drop a key lost city from the books and then not bother to actually go there? Even the shitty Casper Van Dien Tarzan and the Lost City had the decency to at least give us a crappy CGI temple to visit.
Anyway, on with the plot. Seems that Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) really wants Tarzan dead and so he offers to give Rom the diamonds he needs if he can deliver the Ape Man to him, who is currently living the high life in London with Jane. Rom comes up with the clever ruse of asking the British government to send Lord Greystoke aka Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) on a goodwill tour of the Congo, and this leads to my next and biggest caveat; in this movie, Tarzan is reluctant to return to Africa. Since when is Tarzan not a fan of Africa? We actually get dialogue between Jane (Margot Robbie), who is all for returning to the place she considers home, which suggests that Tarzan doesn’t want to return to Africa because of the bad blood between him and Chief Mbonga.
In an interview, Margot Robbie mentioned only taking the part because this version of Jane was not your standard damsel in distress, but aside from one point in the film where she rescues one of the enslaved natives, she does spend the bulk of the film captured. So it’s not all that progressive a part. Now to be fair the Jane of the early books spent a lot of time being a damsel in distress and then later she became a badass in her own right, so I was kind of hoping some of that would be found here. That all said, I think Robbie did an excellent job as Jane and she was probably one of the better-realized characters in this film.
Sadly Alexander Skarsgård may look every inch an ape man in this film but he never once came across as a man who could, at a moment’s notice, kill a lion with his bare hands or tear out a man’s throat with his teeth. He seems way too laid back and restrained. We do get a nice scene where he beats up a bunch of soldiers on a train, and the fight choreography here is excellent, but for the most part, Tarzan doesn’t come across as the forest god he’s supposed to be. At one point we see him running through the trees fully clothed and still wearing his bloody boots. In the books, Tarzan barely needed an excuse to strip down to a loincloth and leap into the jungle, yet here he doesn’t get into his trademark loincloth until the final shot of the movie. From seeing the trailers I was aware that he’d be running around in pants, and I was cool with that, but to see him running along tree branches with his boots still on was beyond stupid.
Tarzan also gets a comic relief character in this film, something he often got in the books, and in this case, it’s based on the real life personage of George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), and it’s Jackson who seems to be having the most fun here. It’s almost like he was the only person that was told that they were in a Tarzan movie, hell the name Tarzan is barely uttered more than once in this movie. And Christoph Waltz isn’t going to win any awards for his portrayal of Léon Rom, it’s not bad but if you’ve seen Inglourious Basterds then you’ve already seen this performance.
For some strange reason, they once again thought we needed to get an origin for Tarzan, thankfully we only get it in small flashbacks so half the film’s running time isn’t wasted on it, but it was really unnecessary and also diverges further from the source material. And again, for some reason they give Tarzan a foster brother in the ape family; while in the book it was because the ape Kala lost her baby that she swapped out her dead one for baby Tarzan. Did this movie think it needed a sibling rivalry subplot? It doesn’t really go anywhere and is only half-heartedly resolved. Jane’s origin they completely revamp with her now having been raised in Africa while her father taught the natives English instead of being marooned by mutineers as she was in the book. This is one change I didn’t mind as it has no real effect on her character for this film. Whether she was marooned or raised in Africa it doesn’t much matter to me; as long as she’s blonde and American you got yourself a Jane.
I know I seem to be a little harsh on this film, but don’t get me wrong I didn’t hate this film, I’m just very disappointed at the loss of potential. With this kind of cast, and a major studio backing it, I was hoping for a wild action-packed romp through the wilds of Africa. Instead, we got too much talky drama, a little bit of action, and all of it taking place in a CGI backlot. It’s been seventeen years since the Disney Tarzan animated movie hit the theatres so I’m mostly concerned that if this film doesn’t do well we may have to wait even longer for the next Tarzan movie.
Note: This a very nature-friendly Tarzan. In this movie, Tarzan is basically Dr. Dolittle as all animals seem to love him, well except for his ape foster brother, and he never once has to kill an animal. I guess it’s not politically correct to have Tarzan leaping out of trees to kill lions and leopards anymore but the character of Tarzan is more than just a guy who fights encroaching white dudes and stock native villains. Simply put, if you don’t have him fighting a big cat or wrestling a crocodile you are doing Tarzan a great disservice.
You can find all my Tarzan movie reviews here: Tarzan at the Movies
The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
David Yates tried to make a sprawling jungle adventure, but aside from some decent performances it doesn’t quite work as the lacklustre script brings this Tarzan up short