Cinema review: New Tarzan swings and misses
The king of the jungle seems like a creature out of time in this stilted action reboot, says Paul Whitington
If ever there was a reboot likely to fall foul of political correctness it's this one. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his first Tarzan story before the outbreak of World War One, and the character has always reflected the social and cultural mores of that time. Through the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s, Tarzan remained hugely popular and inspired dozens of films and TV shows. But that was then and this is now, and these days we might reasonably ask why it had to be a white man who became king of the jungle, and why the indigenous tribes had to be quite so fawning and grateful to him.
The makers of this $180m action blockbuster have clearly thought about all that, and come up with a cunning solution. For in 'The Legend of Tarzan' the Belgians are the villains, and deservedly so.
Not only did they have the temerity to beat us in the Euros, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries they ran a regime in the Congo that was so relentlessly brutal it made the other European colonisers seem like charitable enterprises. Pillage, forced labour, mutilations and summary executions were the order of the day in the Belgian Congo, and it's into this upheaval that Tarzan is plunged.
David Yates' film pays due respect to its original source, and stars Alexander Skarsgard as John Clayton, an English Lord who enjoyed a rather unusual upbringing. In a series of artfully inserted flashbacks, we discover that John's parents ended up stranded in the Congo after being shipwrecked: his mother died, his father was killed by apes and the human baby was adopted by a kindly female.
Raised as a savage, Tarzan learnt to communicate with wild animals and became an international sensation when explorers discovered him. He travelled to England to master the knife and fork and assume his place as head of Greystoke Manor, but now circumstances force him to return to Africa.
It's 1884, Britain and Belgium have carved up the Congo between them and Clayton is asked by his government to head up an expedition to find out exactly what King Leopold's regime is up to. He initially refuses but changes his mind after talking to George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), an American Civil War veteran and campaigner who believes that slavery is being practised in the Congo and wants to expose it. With them goes Jane (Margot Robbie), the daughter of an American missionary Tarzan met in Africa and has since married.
When they get there they find things are even worse than they feared. A crazed Belgian emissary called Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) has been sent by his bankrupt monarch to find diamonds using an army of enslaved workers, and the tribesmen that adopted Tarzan are among the unfortunate inductees. A plot is also afoot to kill Tarzan, who takes to the jungle to rally old friends to his cause.
For its first hour or so, 'The Legend of Tarzan' works tolerably well as a straightforward action adventure. After an unnecessarily slow start, the film kicks off once Mr T and friends reach the Congo, and some of the CGI sequences involving animals are eye-catching. As the film goes on, however, the special effects dis-improve, and are positively amateurish during an epically absurd climax.
The use of actual historical figures like Captain Leon Rum is problematic: the real one apparently had the charming habit of dotting the severed heads of locals around his flower beds, and Christoph Waltz's portrayal of him as a not very threatening Bond villain seems tinny, and disrespectful. And while using the Belgian Congo as a historical backdrop might have seemed like a good idea, it ends up coming across as glib.
No one was going to cast Olivier or Brando as Tarzan - it's a frustratingly one-dimensional role, and more about physique than character. But Alexander Skarsgard is stiff and wooden above and beyond the call of duty, and as his Jane, Margot Robbie is merely asked to be beautiful, a feat she could manage standing on her head.
Films coming soon...
Ghostbusters (Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones); Mom & Me (Ken Wardrop); Summertime (Izia Higelin, Noémie Lvovsky, Céline de France); Men & Chicken (Mads Mikkelsen, Soren Malling, Nicolas Bro).
The Legend of Tarzan
(12A, 110mins) 3 Stars