I’m what one might call a bit of a Tarzan nut, in fact, I’m a massive fan of most of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s works and it drives me crazy how often his writings are mucked up in the translation from book to screen. I’ve read and reviewed almost everything he’s written, having seen all the Tarzan movies outside a few of the silent era ones, which is why I am completely shocked at how much I like this new animated Netflix series as they really play fast and loose with the Tarzan mythology. This series actually turns Tarzan into a superhero, with actual superpowers, and yet it somehow works. That Avi Arad, former CEO of Marvel Studios, was 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 this tale, of course, isn’t the first time this has been done, 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.
In this series, no ship’s mutiny lands Tarzan’s parents in the darkest jungles of Africa, 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 that the local Shaman there can heal the injuries the little fellow had sustained during the crash. Lucky for the kid, Doctor Porter (Paul Dobson), who was visiting this village at the time, had come to Africa to learn about the local medicines and lore, to see if he could combine them with what modern medical science has come up with. Porter does what he can to help the Shaman with the injured babe, while Shaman then mixes his potions – consisting of various animal extracts – with the doctor’s medicines, they then coat the baby during a fire-lit ceremony.
Come morning, the native chieftain (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, “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 to modern times but having Kala bringing Tarzan to a human village, where said villagers give the baby back to an ape after a “magical/science cure”, was just a little too different from the Tarzan I grew up with. They even screwed 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” 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 becomes 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 with, a Lord of the Jungle and a real ass-kicker of evildoers.
Note: In the books, Muviro is 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 Waziri 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 a teenage Tarzan. This is when the show begins to fire on all cylinders.
This version of Jane is a complete delight and is what sets this show apart from many other adaptations. As an author, Burroughs was a product of his time and thus his women characters were not always the strongest or most developed, in the books Jane was normally relegated to being a damsel in distress and only really 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 superpowers that is, and another interesting change is that Jane is of mixed heritage, her father being a very British and a very white doctor, while her mother is an African-American movie star. The show never makes an issue of Jane’s racial diversity, instead, it 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, 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. 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 used 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 so a young Tarzan and Jane “getting it on” with 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 after she trips while the two are being chased by a helicopter, he is netted and captured, and it is then revealed that the Earl of Greystoke had seen youtube footage of the jungle boy and is sure that Tarzan is his grandson and he’d hired people to infiltrate Porter’s staff to look for and retrieve Tarzan, but when the teen ape-man is brought to a “civilization” he wants no part of, well, things get a bit tense after that.
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 was 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 provides us with some nice “fish out of water” humor, but it also allows him to reconnect with Jane who just so happens to have also enrolled at the same school. It’s a small world, roll with it.
Tarzan kind of blames Jane for that whole “being captured” thing, which adds a nice little drama to their relationship, 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 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 this 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 enter the world of 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 here with that concept despite some of the changes being a little odd, to say the least, and I certainly could have done without the occasionally lame moments such as Tarzan using his superpowers to shame a jerk at school on the football field, or Lord Greystoke giving Tarzan a cellphone without bothering to tell him what it was or how it worked, 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 storytelling, 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 well worth checking out.
Tarzan and Jane: Season One
Netflix’s Tarzan and Jane may not be iconic characters that Burroughs envisioned but this alternate world take on them does stay true to the heart of those characters, and with the addition of super powers and a kick ass Jane it certainly makes it a worthy addition to the lexicon of Tarzan.