Creating a contemporary Tarzan film is a bold idea. The critical reaction hit the film hard, many reviews suggesting that the iconic ape-man’s time had passed. Tarzan is a character steeped in problematic history. He’s a white superman fighting his way across the African continent; a relic of the colonialist era. It’s understandable why he might incite such hostility. And yet, 2016’s ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ does everything in its power to modernize the archaic idea. Tarzan of 2016 is less supreme white-superman, and more a conflicted individual, torn between two realities.
David Yates’ follow-up to his Potter films has something that many films in the current cinemascape are lacking: a heart, and a sense of uniqueness. Superhero films battle for box office supremacy, but there isn’t another movie around currently that feels like The Legend of Tarzan. And, unlike so many other films this year, the film practices brevity. The Legend of Tarzan is good, solid adventure entertainment. It takes classic story elements and adds a modern twist to them: Jane fills the ‘damsel’ role, but is far more fiery and psychologically complex. Samuel L Jackson plays George Washington-Williams, a real-life figure who finds himself an investigator, hearty companion and fierce gunslinger. Waltz fulfills the villain role. His Leon Rom is perfectionist, heartless and ambitious. It’s a role that might feel familiar for the actor, but it works well enough.
Skarsgard’s take on Tarzan is, perhaps, the most book-accurate in the history of the character. He is well-educated and refined. He can play the English lord. But Skarsgard’s Tarzan finds himself conflicted about himself; there’s a heaviness that weighs on the character about returning to Africa. He has no ‘real’ home. The performance is very subdued with only two scenes of primal rage showing through. The rest of the time Skarsgard practices minimalism.
Part of the modernization is the film utilising the Congo Free State, Belgium’s oppressive regime of the Congolese people. The film meticulously recreates the costumes and details of the period (such as a train pulling hundreds of elephants tusks into Port Boma). Underneath the summer glamour, Legend of Tarzan touches upon themes of family, respecting the environment, and the damage of destroying connections between people.
David Yates brings a particular aesthetic to the film. His sweeping Africa shots are beautifully captured, using real Congolese locations. Other parts of the film, such as the jungle interiors, were shot on soundstages, yet they remain impressive and imposing, finding a sense of earthy magic. There is a subtle grandeur in these environments, not quite real, slightly exaggerated, yet believable. Action scenes make distinct use of slow motion. And elsewhere the camera finds itself focusing on macro shots and close ups: there is a moving abstraction to Yates’ direction, he finds powerful images in small details – eyes, hands, cutlery, ants.
Despite having a number of exciting action sequences, and an impressive climax, ‘Legend of Tarzan’ finds a brilliant heart in the dynamic between its cast members, in the heightened reality that Yates captures through his lenses, and the sense of wonder both on a huge scale (epic jungle or savannah shots) and an extremely intimate level. The flashbacks are woven into the narrative fabric with grace – and without alarm. Yates simply transitions us into them, without fanfare, exploring Tarzan’s traumatic history. One excellent moment shows Tarzan brought to the Kuba village for the first time after having protected Jane from an irate gorilla. The transition begins with a shot pulling out away from Tarzan, showing the climatic mountain reflected in the window. Jane’s voice is heard. After the flashback we cut from close ups of Tarzan to a close up of Jane, contemplating. The shot lasts awhile. It’s moments like this that stress the love and importance between the two leads, and reveals the subtle beauty and meaning with which David Yates imbues his cinema.
‘Legend of Tarzan’ failed to win over the critics. Its well-intentioned script might still hold problematic racial politics. And yet, it is a worthy film, entertaining and well-made. This could be the last cinematic outing for the legendary character. It seems fitting, to me, that he has finally been given a rewarding effort.
Overall Rating: 8/10
Directing Rating: 8.5/10