By Michael Kaye
The Legend of Tarzan (Review)
The greatest thing about intellectual property that's in the public domain is that you can do whatever you want with said property without having to pay royalties. It's the reason why there are so many different interpretations of A Christmas Carol, and it's also how Disney has built their multimedia empire. Speaking of Disney, in 1999, they released their animated version of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs character Tarzan. For a lot of younger film fans, that was their first exposure to the character, so it's perfectly understandable for them to be skeptical of today's film, The Legend of Tarzan, directed by David Yates and starring Alexander Skarsgård.
Here's the story. Tarzan, having acclimated to life in London, is called back to his former home in the jungle to investigate the activities at a mining encampment.
This is weird. Content wise, I loved this movie, especially as a fan of the character. But structure wise, this feels like the darker sequel to a first movie that never existed. I'll get into that more as I break down my positives and negatives.
*Possible spoilers ahead*
First off, they nailed the casting pretty much down to a tee. It's been a while since I've had a good look at any illustrations of the character, but Anthony Skarsgård completely embodied Tarzan, from his physique to his kind, yet stoic personality, right down to his signature yell! Margot Robbie does a fine job with her American accent playing Jane, who's been married to Tarzan for quite some time. Samuel L. Jackson was probably my favorite character in this movie. He plays George Washington Williams, a Civil War veteren, who aids Tarzan on his mission to save the enslaved people of Congo Free State. And of course, Christoph Waltz has pretty much mastered the mustache-twirling villain archetype as Captain Léon Rom.
As a stand alone movie, I really enjoyed this story. I'm glad they didn't attempt to modernize the characters and the setting, because much like Indiana Jones, Tarzan works best in a very specific historical era. In this case, the story takes place roughly 20 years after the end of the American Civil War, which gives the conflict involving turning the Congo Free State into a trade emissary for the House of Commons more weight. It also provides George Washington Williams a clear motivation for wanting to assist Tarzan to save those people. It's also pretty neat that these are real people they're using as characters to tell this story, which may or may not have been par for the course in the original ERB novels.
The action and visual effects were amazing! Director David Yates's big claim to fame is of course the latter half of the Harry Potter film franchise, which are chock full of great visual effects and surprisingly great action set pieces. Obviously Tarzan and Harry Potter are two completely different franchises, but it feels like he's applied the same amount of attention to detail in terms of establishing the environment in which these characters interact. Now, I unfortunately didn't see this in 3D, but I imagine all the scenes where Tarzan's swinging around on vines in the jungle must have been incredible, and the Lion King-inspired climax with the stampede was a blast to watch.
Finally, I thought the score by Rupert Gregson-Williams was really well done. You wanna know why this guy never gets any attention? It's because aside from Hotel Rwanda, most of the films he's worked on are, well, terrible. I mean, most of that shit pile belongs to Happy Madison, and nobody actually cares about those films enough to put any effort into the score. That's not the case with this movie. While he's no John Williams, Gregson-Williams adds a nice layer of excitement to scenes when necessary, especially the big action set pieces.
Now onto the negatives. I have two different problems with this movie, one of them has to do with the framing of the story, while the other is about its reputation.
I'll start with the reputation first. What does this movie have in common with Disney's John Carter, aside from sharing the same author of their respective source materials? They both suffer from a barrage of poor reviews based on either unrealistic expectations, or apathy for the source material. In John Carter's case, so many other movies, comics, TV shows and video games have been inspired by the source material, that by the time a true John Carter movie made it to the big screen, it came off as "been there, done that." Tarzan has a similar dilemma, but I think the problem with Tarzan is the misplaced anger towards remaking a beloved classic (Disney's Tarzan). Believe it or not kids, Disney was not the first studio to ever put that character on the big screen.
My other problem is one that I already alluded to, how this movie felt like the dark sequel to a fun first movie that never existed. This is a weird way of starting a new franchise, as that makes the few and far between flashback scenes feel like afterthoughts, just in case not everyone is up to speed on Tarzan's origin. I've seen a couple reviews already that have complained about a lack of "fun" with this movie, and I understand where they're coming from. As much as I loved the story, I'll admit that they shouldn't have jumped into something this complex for a first film. Instead, they should have taken the flashback scenes and expanded that into a feature film, then make this the sequel that audiences can get excited about after we're all more familiar with the characters.
The Legend of Tarzan is not perfect, but it's not a total failure either. I have a great deal of respect for Edgar Rice Burroughs and the characters he's created throughout his career, which is why I'll always be excited to see them on the big screen. Everything about this film from the direction, to the cast, and even the music was perfectly in line with the source material, I just wish there was a movie beforehand to lay a better foundation. Overall, I would recommend The Legend of Tarzan, at the very least to appreciate the filmmaking, especially those action scenes.
Now I wanna hear from you guys! Have you seen The Legend of Tarzan, and if so what did you think? Also, are there any other classic characters in the public domain that you'd like to see on the big screen, either for the first time or given a new spin? Drop your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned for my next review, where Spielberg finally gets to make a Disney movie adapting the Roald Dahl children's book The BFG!