The Legend of Tarzan

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN. Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson. and Christoph Waltz. Directed by David Yates. Rated M (Mature themes and violence). 110 min.

This American action-adventure film is based loosely on Edgar Rice Burrough's famous hero, Tarzan. Movies about Tarzan have been around since the days of silent cinema, and this movie attempts to reinvigorate Burrough's fantasy myth in modern style.

John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard), the fifth earl of Greystoke, has married Jane Porter (Margot Robbie), the woman he fell in love with in Africa, and he now lives comfortably with her in London as Lord Greystoke. His past life as king of the jungle, nursed back to health by Jane in the wilds of the jungle, is well behind him. He is lured back, somewhat reluctantly, by the advice he receives from George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an African-American diplomat, who informs him that the Belgian King, Leopold II, is committing atrocities in the Congolese community to gain profitable access to the land's enormously rich supply of ivory and minerals.

Tarzan returns with Jane to Africa, where one of Leopold's envoys - the key villain in the movie, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) - captures Jane, in exchange for a ransom in diamonds for the life of Tarzan which has been promised by a vengeful African chieftain. Washington comes to Tarzan's aid, but Rom whisks Jane away as bait for Tarzan, hoping he will pursue her, which he does. With much adventure in between,Tarzan finds Jane, and Rom eventually meets his fate. Williams returns to London, to expose what is happening in the Belgian Congo, and Tarzan and Jane remain in Africa where Jane gives birth to their first child.

There are some worthy messages in the movie. The film tells us clearly that we should never abandon the people or animals from whence we came, and it reinforces the positive value of personal courage and empathy. The message the film wants to transmit is that Tarzan is not just saving his people, but trying to help them. Between these messages, however, the film exposes us to violence that is brutal to both people and animals. The plot line is complex and very detailed. We are asked to care about Tarzan' love for Jane, confront the villainy of Leon Rom, and cope with some sadism. In all of this, Tarzan never looks vulnerable. He swings through the jungle in smart-looking hipster trousers, while Jane is tied up for most of the movie, awaiting rescue - caught between looking a self-reliant modern woman and a damsel in distress. There is a contemporary tone to a lot of the dialogue, and computer-generated imagery has been used to show some incredible animal shots, which go over the top in a bizarre, gigantic, final scene. It is not hard to recognise that the animals - which are so central to any Tarzan movie - are not for real.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the film is that the fantasy myth of Tarzan, as painted by Burrough's, is a colonial one, many would judge to be racist. Any Tarzan movie must find it difficult to espouse equality for all, and therein lies the film's major challenge. A modern Tarzan movie could have provided a very interesting way of exploring changes in gender attitudes and politics over time, while trying to be reasonably respectful of the original myth. This film doesn't do that. Skarsgard follows the established genre, and plays the traditional role of a white man who pits muscular strength primitively against savage black (and some white) people. The film aims to be liberal, but its direction is too heavy-handed to achieve its intent.

Despite a lack of genuine modernity, the film offers moody action-adventure. Photography of the environment is expressive, and Tarzan's complicated background is treated intelligently by a series of well-selected flashbacks. Skarsgard and Robbie try earnestly to give the film a modern look. However, the film stays in one's mind as a familiar franchise that has been recycled in modern cinematic style. It revives a much loved fantasy tale with adventurous excitement, but only partially supplies us with dramatically strong contemporary relevance.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for film and Broadcasting

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Released July 7, 2016


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