I don’t seem to have it in me these days to write a full blown review of anything. That ever happen to you? It goes in cycles. Sometimes I’m all, “Review all the things!” Right now, not so much. Even so, I want to talk about a movie I saw last night. Think of this as more of a commentary than a review. Or just think of it as early morning word spew as I try to make sense of what’s in my head as coffee begins to fire the synapses.
The Legend of Tarzan is a film that’s been on my radar since the trailer was first released. I know, that’s what a trailer is for. I didn’t ask you, snarky voice in the back of my head. See, I was raised on a steady diet of pulp novels, superhero comics, and classic movies. The name Edgar Rice Burroughs immediately conjures… I don’t want to say “majesty,” because that’s not what pulp novels are about, but in a lot of ways he sets a standard that a lot of others play towards. Tarzan is one of those characters who, whenever I get back to it, would fit into my Modern Age Myths blog posts (edit note: now that I’ve written this, that’s where I’m stashing it). There have been a lot of movies and television aimed at capturing the essence of Tarzan, and as Hollywood as consistently proven, they’re really good at missing the mark. It sometimes happens, but not often. The Legend of Tarzan got so unbelievably close. And the thing is, they not only gave us insights into the origin story, but they gave us a high quality new adventure that meshed real history and the Ape-Man’s legacy in a nearly perfect and highly entertaining way. What I saw last night was unbelievable. It ticked off nearly every box I had.
I have a confession to make here. I’m nowhere near up to snuff on my Tarzan. Most of what I know has come through cultural osmosis and through discussions with my best friend. He’s the real fan on this one. I’ve read Burroughs, but most of what I’ve read are his John Carter books. Tarzan has been in my to-read pile for most of my life. It keeps getting bumped for whatever reason. Of all of the classic adventure characters, Tarzan has been the one that’s intimidated me the most. It’s like I got to the point where I’ve been afraid to open the book because there’s virtually no way it could live up to the hype. After all, it’s a pulp novel. These things are silly fun dipped in some measure of undefined awesome. If you put them on a pedestal, they’ll fall under scrutiny. But still… Tarzan is one of the pillars of pulpdom, one of the truly great characters of all time. I made a promise to myself that I’d read them in the very near future when I first saw that trailer. I even bought a collected edition of the first 8 or 9 novels. Looks great on the shelf, I have to admit, but that doesn’t get it read.
This leads me into the point I’m trying to make. This movie actually made me excited all over again to read these stories. It tapped into the legacy in a way that made me feel like I was already a part of it. I can count on one hand the number of movies made about characters like this that have achieved that effect with me.
First, the story is excellent. There’s adventure and danger of a kind you just don’t get outside of a classic pulp novel. This movie practically oozes pulpy goodness.
Second, the characters are believable. There are good guys and bad guys, and the motivations behind these designations are pure and realistic to what we’d understand in the real world. You even identify with the animals and see them with through the same eyes as Tarzan or Jane. You respect them. You fear them. And that only serves to boost our investment in our lead protagonists.
Our POV character George Washington Williams, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is still a Jackson-level badass, and he’s in over his head in this world, providing some comic relief commentary that only he could pull off. What we learn through his eyes is quite literally, as the title says, the stuff of legend. The villains are realistic and yet uncompromising. There are no needs to sympathize with them. They’re greedy, deadly bastards, and their leader Leon Rom is played to typecasted perfection by Christoph Waltz, who seems to exemplify the very idea of Empire and subjugation, and yet he’s clearly in it for himself. Sidney Ralitsoele as Wasimbu, Osy Ikhile as Kwete, Djimon Hounsou as Chief Mbonga… these guys sell their characters immediately with natural and nuanced performances. I’d love to have seen the film expanded just to give them even more screen time.
I want to focus in on Tarzan and Jane for a moment.
From the moment he appears on screen, Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan makes an impression. For me, the first one was “This guy is really unassuming and not nearly as charismatic as I would have thought. I am already underestimating him, and I know that’s a huge mistake.” It’s classic misdirect, showing you a calm, subdued demeanor of a British lord that hides the wildness that will be unbridled. You can see the clockwork running behind his eyes, which is something that was often overlooked or underplayed in past versions. When that animalistic side finally comes out, it’s borderline terrifying in its own right, and it’s put into context in such a way as to bring this character to full life in a way that’s not been done before to my knowledge. This is Christopher Reeve as Superman, Chris Evans as Captain America, Antonio Banderas as Zorro level amazing. You stop seeing the actor. There is only Tarzan.
Running alongside and counterpoint to this is Margot Robbie as Jane. I won’t say she measured up to what Skarsgård was doing, but she more than lived up to a modern CW-esque interpretation of it. That’s probably my issue. It’s something my friend mentioned, and I had trouble not seeing it. There were moments of greatness, to be sure, and I enjoyed those moments immensely. But where Skarsgård’s Tarzan took the high road at all points as a laconic hero should do, Robbie’s Jane was given a more snarky bent that seemed somewhat inappropriate and out of place for someone worthy enough to stand as his equal. I keep thinking of the line from Mel Brooks: “Funny is money, wit is shit.” And I won’t blame Robbie for this entirely. She delivered what was given, and she made it work within the context of the film. I can’t really claim that I know who might make a better fit for this. 20 years ago, I’d have cast Dana Delaney, but today… I’d have to give it some thought. Had the writing been more consistent with her lines, maybe that would have worked better? Or maybe if she’d delivered them in a way that seemed less bratty millennial at times? In those sequences when Robbie is at her best, she brings to the table the kind of strength and charisma that you’d believe someone like Tarzan would be willing to fight and die for. That’s always the real trick, that the hero and heroine have to be worthy of one another. I can’t deny the two actually had some chemistry, but still, something was missing. Honestly, it’s one of two only real gripes with the film, and it’s such a minor one as I’m not saying she didn’t work. It’s the right idea. I’m just saying there’s room to grow. And maybe my assessment will grow as well. It’s early yet.
I think if I had to call out the biggest gripe I have, it’s the soundtrack. Rupert Gregson-Williams has given us a beautifully serviceable score, and that’s all fine and well if it existed in a bubble as its own thing. But there’s nothing memorable about it whatsoever, and it’s an old gripe I have, where it’s all copied directly from the Hans Zimmer school of sameness that’s permeated the culture for the last 20 years or so. For someone who doesn’t pay any attention to film scores, I’m sure it’ll work just fine. For someone like me… I’m bored already. I need a score that’s as inspiring as the film I’m watching, and I’d really love it if the idea of memorable character themes would come back into play. I guess what I’m saying is a film this good deserves a John Williams score. It deserves it.
On the whole, writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer delivered a modern take on a century old story to cynical world that said it couldn’t be done. Now that I know it can be, there’s an entire laundry list of pulp characters I’d like to see given this treatment. We’re right on the cusp of a shared franchise, assuming the copyright holders would work together to see such a thing through. It would be the perfect antidote to the never-ending beating that WB/DC is doing with their characters, and it’d offer something different from what Marvel’s doing. Now that I know it can be done, I want to see The Shadow, The Phantom, and Doc Savage given this exact same treatment. I want to see Zorro and the Lone Ranger revitalized properly. Yes, I’m a bit greedy on this front, but hey, that’s what being a fanboy is all about sometimes. Perchance to dream. A film like The Legend of Tarzan gives me hope in an era where there’s so little of it anymore.
Look at that… I wrote a review after all. Who knew? And now… it’s finally time for me to read those books. That’s ultimately the highest praise I can give a movie like this, that it inspires someone to seek out the source material so these great stories can live again for the right reasons.