Back when the Earth was young and no one knew what it was like to be woke, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes, a story that was simultaneously about a white boy and jungle superhero raised by apes and black people and women as savages and damsels.
In Burroughs’s invented universe, "Tarzan" meant "white skin" in ape language. And if you’ve ever heard of the suburb called "Tarzana," the author bought land outside Los Angeles and wanted to create a whites-only neighborhood named after his creation. Burroughs, who was also a fan of eugenics, died in 1950 — too soon to see his creation become the wokest, swollest bae in the jungle in new film The Legend of Tarzan.
Directed by David Yates (best known for helming several of the Harry Potter films), The Legend of Tarzan is an interesting remix of Burroughs’s work. Together with screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, Yates has mended several of Burroughs’s racist, sexist views to create a film where black lives matter, where Jane (Margot Robbie) is more daring than damsel, colonialism is synonymous for white evil, and Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) is as concerned with equality as he is muscular (very).
It’s also the first movie I’ve ever seen that offers a realistic, terrifying portrayal of the power and deadly speed of a hippopotamus.
But that doesn’t necessarily make The Legend of Tarzan a good movie. Or, sadly, even a mediocre one.
Me Tarzan, you will get bored
Yates’s retelling opens with Skarsgård’s Tarzan living as Lord Greystoke, a dignified man who sips tea with an outstretched pinky finger and keeps company with diplomats. He and Jane are now living in a yawning mansion outside London. She longs to return to Africa, while he would like to stay put.
The plot turns when Tarzan/Greystoke is invited back to Africa, the Congo specifically, as part of a nefarious plot by some dastardly Belgians who plan to kidnap and trade him for diamonds and enslave African tribes. He initially declines the offer. But Samuel L. Jackson’s American sharpshooter George Washington Williams, who has seen slavery firsthand, makes an appeal: He believes there’s a strong possibility that the Belgians are enslaving the African tribes. And Tarzan and Jane can’t sit idly by knowing this.
There are moments when the acting talent on display in The Legend of Tarzan threaten to make the plot of the movie more interesting. Robbie is entertainingly plucky as Jane, and Christoph Waltz is appropriately snivelly as the Belgian drip of a villain Leon Rom. Skarsgård’s commitment to the physicality of Tarzan/Greystroke and Jackson’s comedic timing are both impressive. And Djimon Hounsou’s Chief Mbonga, a character used in a secondary plot that feels more like a glorified cameo, is spellbinding.
Yates and his screenwriters display an eagerness to correct Burroughs’s one-note characterizations. They hint at the existence of a variety of African tribes, even though we spend the most time with the Kuba, whom Jane lived with before coming to London. The Kuba are intelligent, multilingual, peaceful, kind, and friendly. Tarzan listens to them (bae so woke) because they know the Congo better than him and have witnessed the destruction caused by the Belgians, who marred the landscape with railroad tracks.
Robbie’s Jane and Jackson’s Washington Williams, who feels like a cross between Jackson playing Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, both benefit from the same kind of treatment. She’s craftier and smarter than the Jane that Burroughs wrote. He’s the moral voice who advocates on behalf of the slaves, having lived through America’s Civil War.
It’s fascinating to me that The Legend of Tarzan devotes so much time to fixing certain parts of Burroughs’s original tale, without making any effort to add charge or zest to the plot. At its core, the film remains a story about a white man saving black Africans who can’t save themselves. It chugs along, forcing its players to go along with its action-adventure romance motions, one generic beat at a time.
The special effects are Tarzan’s only saving grace
Skarsgård’s Tarzan sports the most imposing superhero figure of the year — and, yes, I’m including Ben Affleck’s bulging Batman, Henry Cavill’s shredded Superman, and Chris Evans’s helicopter-curling Captain America. Skarsgård is a physical marvel, someone who looks like he just stepped out of a comic book.
Tarzan is bae.
The only beings in this film that match up with him physically are the CGI’d apes that Tarzan considers his family. There must be some mad jungle CrossFit regimen going on in the Congo, because one of these apes could singlehandedly take out an entire Pro Bowl defensive line. And The Legend of Tarzan’s creative team seems to have really figured out how to depict the apes and other animals with weight and movement that feels real.
The film’s special effects deserve praise. There’s a Spider-Man-esque quality to many of the action sequences, as Tarzan and his bros swing from vine to vine. They flip from one to the next, covering hundreds of yards between each swing. Watching them is soaring, giddy fun.
Maybe that’s all the film should have tried to accomplish.
The Legend of Tarzan is at its best when it shrugs off its seriousness and goes for the joyous and the campy. When it doesn’t play safe — even if that means having Skarsgård get down on all fours, shut his eyes, and nuzzle back and forth with a lion, which is a real thing that happens in this film — it shines.
Unfortunately, The Legend of Tarzan is much less skilled at balancing its campiness with the serious nature of the topics it wants to touch. The movie so badly wants to be different from what Burroughs initially intended. But despite its tweaks and shifts in the characters we see, the movie ends up following the same path as the Tarzan films of the past, as well as any generic action-adventure flick. And not even wokest bae can fix that.
The Legend of Tarzan is playing in theaters throughout the country.