American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 creation Tarzan has inspired several adventure films from less enlightened times, animation and spoofs. For instance, George of the Jungle (1997), starring Brendan Fraser, merrily sends up the man in a loincloth who was brought up by apes and tamed by the civilisational touch of a beautiful woman. George’s ability to talk to animals is put to perfect use in the end: he becomes a showbiz entertainer.
The new movie from Harry Potter director David Yates is very serious in its resurrection of a character thought to be best suited to cheaply produced paperbacks and comic books. The Legend of Tarzan is a visually stunning and thematically curious revisionist tale that considers the era’s debates about Europe’s colonisation of Africa and the practice of slavery over the bare shoulders of a white man with blonde hair who swings through trees.The movie lands in the middle of an ongoing controversy over Hollywood’s depiction of black lives and non-American cultures and on the back of the hugely successful Jungle Book reboot. While Rudyard Kipling’s nineteenth-century creation, the feral child Mowgli who inspired Tarzan, arrived in our midst by shedding his colonial baggage, The Legend of Tarzan bravely sallies forth into the treacherous terrain of the thinking blockbuster.
Tarzan gets a specific address in Yates’s movie, written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer: he is located in the ironically named Congo Free State, a Belgian colony that was created by King Leopold with the express purpose of pillaging its human and natural resources. In the movie, Leopold is running short of funds to carry on his entreprise, and he recruits trader Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to buy rare diamonds from a fearsome tribe led by Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). Mbonga will happily trade the white rocks in return for Tarzan, with whom he has an old score to settle.
The grown-up version of the feral child has returned to his blue-blooded roots in England, where he lives under the name John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard) with his beloved wife Jane (Margot Robbie). The couple willingly returns home to the tribe that learnt English from Jane’s missionary father and housed Tarzan when he was rescued from the jungle as an adult. Black activist George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson) joins the ride, and his firepower comes handy when Rom’s men use Jane as a hostage.
Williams is the archetypal outsider through whose awestruck eyes we watch Tarzan leap off hilltops and woosh through trees, but he is an unlikely choice, given the colour of his skin. The movie makes a welcome, if clumsy, attempt to fit slavery into the tentpole template, but it is unable to shake off its white saviour complex. The depiction of the African characters is earnest but patronising, and the movie does no service to the Congo by suggesting that Tarzan and Jane have a special, almost feral, ability to connect with the natives and animals because of the time they spent on the continent.
Yet, some efforts have been taken to update Burrourghs’s adventures with what we now know about the colonisation of Africa. The screenwriters appear to have read King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild’s masterful survey of the Congo Free State – there’s a throwaway line about American explorer Henry Morgan Stanley, who claimed the Congo for Leopold – while George Williams’s character is a reminder of the history of slavery in the continent.
Many of the movie’s achievements are typically visual. The gorgeous colour palette takes in the greys of John Clayton’s sterile mansion in England and the lushness of his home in Africa. The depth of Henry Braham’s camerawork merges seamlessly with the visual effects. Tarzan’s animal whispering skills result in a watchfulness that is perfectly picked up by the camera and sound design. Some of the best scenes are set in the wild, where Tarzan nuzzles lions, fights with the apes, and puts his ability to mimic mating calls to good use.
Christoph Waltz reins in the smugness that made him a breakout star in Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Margot Robbie makes an eye-popping Jane, but the mostly bare-torsoed and laconic Skarsgard turns out to be surprisingly effective as the ape in human form. As the plot slowly but surely meanders out of control in the service of delivering a big-bang finish, it’s the sequences in the jungle and the incredibly real computer-generated animals that endure over the greedy and confused humans.
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