Film Review: Tarzan, Swinging through the CGI Jungle

Of course, with the assistance of the massed megafauna (big beasts), and the yodeling of Tarzan, Jane is saved.

The Legend of Tarzan, directed by David Yates. Screening at AMC Boston Loews Common 19, AMC Assembly Row 12.

A scene from "The Legend of Tarzan."

Margot Robbie (Jane) and Alexander Skarsgård (Tarzan) sharing a tender moment in The Legend of Tarzan.

By Harvey Blume

It was a hot and muggy day when I saw The Legend of Tarzan and remarked later of the experience that at least the air-conditioning worked. As for the film itself, well, its endless supply of CGI gorillas, elephants, ostriches, lions, buffalo, hippopotami, and crocodiles have staying power, and tend to thump and growl in the imagination long after the show is over. In that respect, you get your money’s worth.

Tarzan, played by Alexander Skarsgård, formerly a vampire in the True Blood series, communes with all these creatures, and can command them, too, when need be, except, that is for hippopotami, who do little but loll in dark mud and try to chomp clean through anyone who comes close. When Tarzan leads these animals, minus muddy hippos, into a decisive battle, the movie turns into a version of Avatar when all the living things of Pandora unite to repel invaders from a dying Earth.

In The Legend of Tarzan, the Congo Free State in central Africa serves as Pandora. It’s not the far future but the late nineteenth century, when European powers were tussling with each other for rights to Africa. Hence, the invaders in this movie are Brits and Belgians greedy for diamonds and slaves. Besides thinking of Avatar, you may also feel that the movie resembles Jurassic Park, what with the expansive jungle settings and the large animals boiling out of the scenery at every turn. Legend of Tarzan calls to mind many movies but is stuck with the insoluble problem being itself.

For good measure, it tosses in an unlikely bromance, probably the first in the Tarzan canon. Samuel L. Jackson plays George Washington Williams, a journalist, who wants to see if there’s truth to the rumors about hideous misrule of the Congo by Leopold II of Belgium. Williams can’t keep up with Tarzan when it comes to swinging on vines, and gets winded running up hills. But he’s plucky, as few characters played by Jackson aren’t, and crows in delight when he gets to mount a Gatling Gun in the grand battle against Belgians and the Brits. As the film concludes, he and Tarzan fall into a zesty triumphal embrace. Tarzan’s nuzzling a pride of mature lions he’s last seen when they were cubs is more integral to the film.

Jane is there too. As played by Margot Robbie, she’s a fey and feisty damsel who nevertheless needs lots of rescuing by Tarzan, much as the character played by Karen Allen in Invaders of the Lost Ark needed a lot of rescuing by Indiana Jones. Jane’s captor is Leon Rom, played by Christoph Waltz. Rom’s role brings us to the non-CGI aspect of the plot, such as it is.

He needs to bring diamonds to Leopold II, so the profligate ruler can get out of debt to the British. But diamonds belong to the Congolese chief who lives on a mountain full of them, and who will only yield up his gems if Rom brings him Tarzan, against whom he nurses a blood grievance. The problem is that, Tarzan, as John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke, has settled into cozy married life with Jane back in England, and has no urge to return to Africa, which he recalls as “hot.” It’s Williams who motivates John Clayton to strip down and become Tarzan again, and go back to Africa to find out if what they say about Leopold is true.

When it comes to Leopold, the movie does brush against history, a little. The film at least alludes to the Berlin Conference of 1884, when Leopold was awarded personal rule over the vast territory known as the Congo Free State. That was in no small part because England, France, and Germany preferred not to go to war over it, and giving it to Leopold, king of small, neutral Belgium, seemed a stopgap. The movie is on the mark, too, when it explains that Leopold promised to civilize the savages, to bring them Christianity and jobs. And it is on the mark again when it suggests, in its crude, unnecessarily erroneous way — the slave trade was over, diamonds are forever but rubber was the new gold — that Leopold was in fact the greatest, greediest, and most uncivilized of savages.

But back to Jane in the clutches of Rom. Waltz is best known for his role in Inglorious Basterds, and justifiably for that scene in which, at a Paris cafe in occupied France, this Jew-killer and Nazi helper gloats about la créme in a dessert he’s eating. He is at his best, and may forever be typecast, with knife and fork in hand, dining in front of a captive damsel. He tries the same routine in The Legend of Tarzan, on a steamboat before a captive Jane. But she won’t eat with him. She’d rather throw herself to the hippos, which she eventually does. And Waltz, as he cuts up his supper alone, is not nearly as compelling as the scoundrel who relished crème. Perhaps he’s only really good with dessert.

Between the massed megafauna (big beasts), and the yodeling of Tarzan, of course, Jane is saved. As is Africa, from Brits and Belgians. For the sake of providing a little more of an anchor in history, the film might have pictured Joseph Conrad marching out of the Congelese jungle, inspired to write The Heart of Darkness. It might have mentioned, too, that both Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain wrote telling exposes of Belgian rule. The movie doesn’t go there.

The lure of seeing this film is CGI, and, if the heat gets to you, air-conditioning.

Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.

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