Friday, July 15, 2016

Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

I've historically not been interested in the Tarzan mythology, even though I remember getting a kid version of Tarzan of the Apes at the elementary-school book fair long ago. However, I saw the trailers for the jungle-history-adventure film The Legend of Tarzan and they looked really cool, so I decided to go see it.

How was it?

The Plot

John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård), an English aristocrat raised by apes in the African jungle but ultimately returned to civilization after rescuing missionary's daughter Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) from a violent ape, is asked to visit Belgian King Leopold's Congolese colony on behalf of the British government. He declines, but is asked by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to accept the invitation in order to help him investigate rumored mass enslavement of Congolese by Leopold's regime, which as far as the outside world knows is a humanitarian venture whose purpose is to educate the natives, spread Christianity, and protect them from Arab slavers.

Taking up Williams' offer, he returns to the village on the edge of the Congolese jungle where Jane's father taught the locals English and where he was a local legend "Tarzan," an evil spirit who could control the animals of the jungle. The village is attacked by Force Publique soldiers under the command of Belgian official Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who intend to trade Clayton to African chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), whose son Tarzan had killed years before, in exchange for a hoard of diamonds. Williams and Clayton escape but Jane and many of the villagers are captured by Rom's men, who take them upriver into Mbonga's domain. Clayton, Williams, and a posse of African villagers pursue...

The Good

*One generally doesn't associate "jungle action-adventure movies" with really good acting, but I was impressed with the actors in this one, especially the supporting cast. Robbie impresses as Jane, who's quite spunky and not the sort of damsel who easily ends up in distress (or has problems getting out of it). Jackson's Williams is pretty cool, especially when he opens up about his past and the reasons why he's trying to expose Leopold's misdeeds. Waltz plays Rom in an oily and cunning way that reminds me very much of Aidan Gillen's Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. And Hounsou, even though he's not onscreen very much, does a great job conveying a grieving and very, very angry father.

*I like the tie-ins with real history. Both Rom and Williams are real people, while the enslavement and exploitation of the peoples of the Congo by the Congo Free State (the king's personal project, not affiliated with the Belgian government until the revelation of his crimes made it radioactive) was a very real and evil thing. If anything, the film downplays the regime's cruelty--we see generic colonial crimes like Africans being killed or taken as slaves, but none of the especial horrors that led to the death of ten million people, half of Congo's population. Read King Leopold's Ghost if you want to know more. The movie doesn't need to be pushed into R territory with excessive additional violence, but perhaps a scene of villagers with missing hands or dying en masse of starvation because the men are all collecting rubber and the women and children are all being kept hostage (so nobody is actually growing food) could be included.

*Per the above, the tale of a colonial-era white guy as king of the African jungle could run into all sorts of problems in an age where the wider culture (or at the very least cultural arbiters and gatekeepers like movie critics, studio VIPs, academics, etc) are much more sensitive to charges of racism. I remember someone online openly wondering if the Tarzan story should even be retired completely as a relic of a less-enlightened time. However, the film retains unaltered the characters of Tarzan (the white "king of the jungle") and Jane (his white American wife) while at the same time depicting black people as something other than violent spear-chucking villains and/or helpless people who need Tarzan to save them from the peril of the week. Heck, instead of being a "White Savior," Tarzan would much rather stay home in Britain and it takes Williams to get him to go back to Africa in the first place. Williams, although not as ludicrously fit as Tarzan, is essentially his equal, while Mbonga, instead of being another howling savage from central casting, is developed as a character. And when Tarzan goes to war, he has a posse of African allies backing him up.

*There's some really good foreshadowing. Tarzan's skills and physical power are shown in little doses before he goes into full Tarzan mode--he can hear Williams cracking nuts in a meeting when nobody else can and he climbs a tree on his English estate by pulling himself several feet up onto a branch with only one arm. The fact that hippos, not crocodiles or lions, are the most dangerous animals in Africa is revealed well before we even get to Africa, let alone before the hippos become a problem. And Tarzan's ability to mimic animal mating calls is revealed pretty early in the film too. There's a whole arsenal of Chekhov's guns put on display before they're fired, instead of New Powers As The Plot Demands.

*Rom is clearly a villain, but during a conversation with the captive Jane he reveals a lot of the issues driving him and they're all quite understandable. Everybody is the hero of their own story and although Rom's deeds clearly make him a bad guy, he has intelligent and even sympathetic motivations.

*Although I had some problems with the script (I'll get to those later), one thing I definitely appreciated is just how funny it is. Jane's first meeting with the young Tarzan many years before the story begins is downright hilarious, as is Williams' character in general. There are a lot of funny bits in the movie and I rather appreciate them.

*The older Tarzan works depicted gorillas as murderously homicidal and violent (probably due to limited scientific knowledge at the time), but in reality gorillas are much less violent than the smaller chimpanzees. The movie gets around this by specifically differentiating the "Mangani" apes that raised Tarzan from gorillas, who are explicitly described as "gentle."

The Bad

*There are some really draggy bits in the first third or so of the movie, before the Claytons return to Africa. Things get better later on, fortunately.

*Skarsgård is not nearly as interesting or impressive as Clayton/Tarzan as Jackson, Robbie, Honsou, and Waltz are as the other characters. The movie could have depicted him as someone having problems fitting in with civilization and only being really "free" once he's returned to the jungle (I think that was a major aspect of one of the 1980s Tarzan movies), but that vein isn't really mined very much. I've heard Skarsgård is a great actor, so that might be on the script.

*Many African cultures are polygamous and even if the (fictional) culture of Opar does not allow the practice, larger families would have been the norm. I doubt Tarzan would have killed Mbonga's only son. Make it his eldest son and that would be fine. Heck, it could have been any son, not just the eldest.

*The historical Force Publique would have been recruited from the local population and thus would have been mostly black, with white officers. In the film we see an occasional black guy in the Force Publique, but they mostly seem to be white European mercenaries. Obviously one can't be too picky about historical accuracy, especially if one wants a happy ending given the history of the Congo, but if one is concerned depicting Africans complicit in the European conquest of other Africans will annoy people, it could be made clear why they're fighting. Give them agency, if you will, like the movie is clearly doing with Mbonga. Rom could explicitly be depicted recruiting poor and outcast Africans with the promises of money or power, recruiting soldiers from one tribe with the promise of them getting to kill their rivals, etc.

*We could see more of the reasons Rom has for doing what he does in other scenes beyond his conversation with Jane. The climactic battle would be a very good place for it--when things go poorly it's him who keeps the villains going. His issues simply will not let him give up. This would also make him more impressive.

*The climactic battle--not going to go into a lot of detail for reasons of spoilers--is over way too quickly. I would have prolonged it, which would also allow for Tarzan's African allies to do more.

*The villainous Rom is depicted as fiddling on his rosary a lot and claims to have been very close to his local priest as a child. However, the real-life strong Christian faith that drove Williams (he was a Baptist minister as well as a soldier and diplomat) to challenge Leopold's cruelty is absent from his character completely. Other reviewers have referred to Jane as the daughter of a missionary and although that's not explicit, it seems to me that's the only plausible reason her father is teaching English to remote African villagers. There are purely secular NGOs like Doctors Without Borders today, but it is my understanding that back then the kind of people who did the stuff the elder Porter did (i.e. traveling to remote places and educating the people) would have been Christian missionaries like Dr. Livingston.

Given the times, the overwhelming majority of Westerners would have been at least nominally Christian, but only the evil Rom is depicted as being such and that left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

*We're told that Tarzan and Jane had lost a child and that's why Tarzan is reluctant to have Jane accompany him back to Africa, but the impact on them could have been explored more deeply. Even a miscarriage, let alone the death of a newborn or older child, will leave its wounds, but that only seems important in one scene. Jane could be clearly depressed in England and Tarzan could agree to have her accompany him, despite his concerns for her safety, in the hopes that a trip will lift her spirits.

*The British Prime Minister trying to get Tarzan to support Leopold's venture on the grounds it would give the natives jobs is anachronistic. The idea that a government's duties including keeping people employed was not common back then, especially in more laissez-faire Britain. I would have had him play the "white man's burden" card--he could believe the claims that Leopold's government is educating and protecting the natives who Tarzan knew as a young man. Only Williams is skeptical, since as as a black man he would have reasons to distrust white paternalism.

The Verdict

Surprisingly well-done, but with a few flaws. Definitely worth the $4 I paid to see it at North DeKalb Mall's AMC (which has first-run movies for matinee prices I haven't seen in many years) and worth a matinee price at a more expensive place. 8.0 out of 10.

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