How is it possible to discredit sacred literature? By taking one of its most enduring, treasured characters and turning him into a running, leaping, swinging freak, without mind or soul. Tarzan’s stories have always carried weight, because they dealt with alienation, not just with his fellow humans, but with the gorillas that raised and protected him. Reintroducing him to human civilisation was as unpredictable as releasing a recuperated lion cub back into the wild, and that was fascinating. This new Tarzan movie reimagines Lord Greystoke’s story, makes him older but not necessarily wiser, amps up the action, and completely leaves its human story floating on the back of an endless CGI stream.
Computer graphics are fast allowing live-action films to do what once could only have been done in animation: to realise worlds, characters and dimensions that would otherwise not have been realised purely with practical effects. But what they have yet to accomplish is animation’s natural ability to weave real and fantasy into one united tapestry, so that we are convinced, for example, that both Mei and Totoro occupied the same space and interacted with each other. If CGI is done right, we are convinced. If it is not, as in The Legend of Tarzan, it looks more like those holographic projections you find at the natural history museum.
But poor CGI is only one of this movie’s travails. The story takes place however many years after Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) is brought back to England. He’s now lord of his manor, is married to the supple Jane Porter (Margot Robbie), and regards his home in Africa with gazes most pathetic. Do you think developing circumstances will coerce him to return to the Congo once again? Does a bear crap in the woods?
It doesn’t take much persuasion, just carefully plotted words from George Washington Williams, played by Samuel L. Jackson playing Samuel L. Jackson. The plot then shifts to the Congo, where the wicked Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz, stuck in a villainous loop) has hatched a terrible scheme involving rare diamonds and a mercenary horde to — well I’m not entirely sure what his plan is. I’m not even sure he knows what it is. At one point, he has to get Jane to explain it to him. No matter. He’s the guy with the “villain” name tag, which makes our job of knowing who to side with very easy.
It’s unfortunate that such promising material and engaging characters are treated here as nothing more than placeholders for dour conversations and action sequences involving computer-generated creatures. These people are ripe for the picking. How does Tarzan truly feel about returning to his home? We’ll never know. The plot doesn’t slow down enough for him to explore his emotions. It just wants him topless and back in those trees as quickly as possible. How does George Williams feel about being dunked into a fictional adventure where gorillas are referred to as monkeys and just about every animal betrays instinct by wanting to eat humans? And where does Jane fit into all this?
The plot fragments between the present and the past, chronicling significant events in the Tarzan and Jane story. My opinion is this: if you’re going to make a What Happened After movie, don’t jump back to the past. Trust your audience enough to walk into a Tarzan movie already knowing his story. If they don’t, it’s not your job to remind them. This is why sequels that rely too much on nostalgia often tick people off. We know Tarzan was raised by apes. We know he met Jane and was instantly awestruck. We know he left his family in devastation and returned to humanity. Pick it up from there and lead them to new places.
As a last observation, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Congo back in the 1800s supplied dumbbells and protein shakes to its villages. Every warrior and gatherer we see is built like Charles Atlas. Isn’t it amazing how the movies can teach us about history?