It’s popular to emphasize the difference between “millennials” and the generations before them. I’m was born in the earliest years of the “millennial” demographic, and my parents are pretty firmly in the “baby boomer” category. I feel like we can talk pretty easily. Sure, it’s weird that I grew up with the Internet, but so many of the things that are so weird today – smart phones, etc – have precedence in their world, even if they look different in mine. In stark contrast, my parents were alive when Tarzan writer Edgar Rice Burroughs died in 1950. Born in 1875, it’s difficult for me to imagine baby boomers sharing anything in common with a guy who was born before both World Wars, at the height of the British Empire, before cars and telephones and movies. And yet, Edgar Rice Burroughs created two enduring 20th century icons – John Carter and Tarzan. However, it’s precisely the resolutely 20th century popularity (and fundamentally 19th century origins) of Burroughs’ creations that create problems for 2016’s The Legend of Tarzan. It’s a beautiful, well-acted film, but it feels like a story in search of a time to belong.
With his origin told largely in flashback, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, who was raised in the jungle as the infamous Tarzan (Alexsander Skarsgård, True Blood) has returned to London and is living the life of nobility with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street). But the past – including John’s early life as Tarzan and his marital life with Jane – comes back to haunt him as a figure from his – Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou, Gladiator) – past seeks revenge. Meanwhile, the Belgian King Leopold wants to exploit his holdings in the African Congo, including access to precious gemstones. Only Chief Mbonga stands in the way of Belgium’s plans, so fixer Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained) agrees to put Tarzan in Mbonga’s sights in exchange for access to the richest diamond deposit in the Congo. Opposing Belgium’s plans is abolitionist George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight), who also wants Tarzan back in Africa to help fight the emerging slave economy around Belgium’s Congo holdings. Personal and political will collide with Tarzan at the center.
Whether you enjoy the stories or not, it has to be admitted that Tarzan is an ingenious creation. With one character, Edgar Rice Burroughs gets to combine a fish-out-of-water story, a rags-to-riches story, and all the trappings of exotic Africa. No wonder his audience ate up dozens of Tarzans stories over several decades. With the best of the 19th century – all that aristocratic and exploratory business – combined with the more modern sensibility of the pulps. And it’s no wonder that Tarzan was popular with the then-new technology of cinema, and therefore was featured in numerous shorts, feature-length narratives, and cartoons. And that’s before the inevitable parodies and knock-offs.
It’s this very popularity that works against The Legend of Tarzan. We’ve seen Tarzan before, and most of today’s cinema-going audience grew up with third-generation parodies before they even realized there was an original figure. That’s not a huge problem – dust the old guy off and give him a new story and all should be well. Except Tarzan is so resolutely of his earlyt-20th century time that it’s difficult to return to his story in an era where racial tension in America is high and the horror so colonial exploitation have been taught in the history books.
The Legend of Tarzan deserves some credit for trying to slice the Gordian knot of Tarzan’s deplorable origins in colonial-era fascination in exotic Africa, an origin that obscured the very real and very brutal treatment of African peoples by (for instance) the Belgian king. The film does so by putting the warrior in Social Justice Warrior and making Tarzan a character opposed to the slavery starting up in the Congo. It also helps that his Jane isn’t the simpering dumb-blonde stereotype. Margot Robbie goes the other direction, her Jane a fierce, intelligent advocate for herself and those around her.
But the things that The Legend of Tarzan improves are also its shortcomings. Any kind of reboot or reimaging, especially of something rooted in the past, demands that it show viewers why it exists. It must justify our investment, and in the case of Legend, there’s not much going on. Sure Tarzan’s now against the colonial enterprise instead of a weird symbol of it. But there’s still no untangling the weird racial politics of the “lord of the jungle” being a white dude improbably raised by some kind of ape. Jane, too, is better. But in her case she still has to be the damsel in distress, so no matter how intelligent and spunky Margot Robbie makes her, she’s still stuck in basically the same passive role. So we haven’t really come all that far.
Not, of course, that Legend is all that bad. The real reason this film exists is not because anyone had a good idea of how to handle Tarzan. Nope, the film exists because Alexander Skarsgård can be relied upon to build a physique to impress both ladies and gentlemen. Just as importantly, CGI has improved to a degree not dreamt of when the last major Tarzan film (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) was shot in 1984. Everything from the wide vistas of Africa to the animals who raise Tarzan benefit from top-flight effects. Those looking for summer popcorn spectacle will find Legend entertaining enough.
Though not quite legendary, this is a fine Blu-ray release for the film. The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded image seems to be true to the look of the film. It was shot digitally with plenty of post-production, so don’t expect a natural or film-like appearance. Instead, there’s an otherworldly vibe where colors are pushed or desaturated to indicate mood and atmosphere. But detail is generally strong, and there are no significant artifacts to mention. Black levels are also deep and consistent, which suggest that this is how the film is supposed to look. The Atmos track is even more impressive. It’s aggressive and immersive in equal measure, providing atmosphere and effects without sacrificing clarity or dialogue in the quest for volume.
Extras are largely confined to five featurettes that tackle the overall making-of, some of the film’s action sequences, as well as pieces on the jungle and animals. There’s also a short PSA on stopping the ivory trade. DVD and Ultraviolet Digital copies are included as well.
The Legend of Tarzan is fine as simple popcorn entertainment. It neither sullies the reputation of Tarzan, nor does it push the character in any particularly new directions. Instead, we get a reliable series of CGI-enhanced action spectacle featuring the beautiful bodies of Skarsgård and Robbie. That’s not life-changing, but it’s probably enough for any audience who is interested in the characters or the actors.