This is a pretty good movie. It tells a coherent story, a fictional story, with a hyper-realistic look that also is fictional.
The set-up is this: Tarzan (who was raised in Africa by apes and domesticated by a teacher’s daughter named Jane) is now John Clayton III, lord of Greystoke, wearing a suit and living a conventional English life when he is called to No. 10 Downing Street and asked to return to Africa on a business project. He is convinced to go only later when an African American doctor tells Clayton of reports that the King of Belgium’s agents have been enslaving Africans in the Belgian Congo.
Jane, now Mrs. Tarzan, insists on joining the trip, and the couple meet up with old friends, including African tribesmen, apes and friendly lions. Then a bad white guy, in concert with the angry chief of another tribe whose members seem to have rolled their bodies in gray chalk, kidnaps Jane in order to provoke Tarzan to rescue her and then be himself captured and delivered to his enemy. Meanwhile, there is investigation of African slavery.
In Africa, Tarzan reverts to his earlier self and (spoiler alert!) gives better than he gets.
Tarzan was created in 1912 by writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, who apparently never visited Africa and featured the character in dozens of adventure novels. Tarzan movies began appearing in the days before talkies and have been popular ever since. There have been at least 50 Tarzan movies.
The most recent iteration was conceived many years ago, and there were numerous starts and stops along the way with different scripts, directors and potential actors. (Swimmer Michael Phelps was reported at one point to be in the running for the title role.)
The film’s scriptwriters did their homework. The timing coincides with King Leopold II’s brutal and murderous suppression of Africans in the Belgian Congo. The doctor who accompanies Tarzan has much in common with a true and improbable 19th century man; played by a well-armed Samuel L. Jackson, he also bears a resemblance to the character Jackson played in “Pulp Fiction.” There is mysterious scenery and a riverboat (going to the ocean, though, not inland) that recalls Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Tarzan has a distinctive yell, as did the iconic Tarzan played by Johnny Weissmuller in the 1940s.
The film, like Disney’s “The Jungle Book” this spring, was filmed almost entirely on studio sets and augmented with lush African footage shot by a camera team detailed to Gabon. The CGI action and effects are excellent.
The entire project is reported to have cost $180 million, but it opened to so-so reviews. Unlike most action movies, however, it has a plot that generally holds together. I wouldn’t be surprised if word of mouth caused attendance to tick up over the summer.
1. This may sound odd, but the “The Legend of Tarzan) may be too perfect. Here is a Warner Bros. promotional still of the title character, who is played by Alexander Skarsgård.
Either the actor did a LOT of body work to prep for the part, or his image has been enhanced more than the photos in fashion magazines. He makes Weismuller (who won five Olympic gold medals for swimming) look like a punk.
In addition, Tarzan swings on vines with the ease of Spider-Man. He jumps off cliffs and lands, uninjured, on his feet. He is so beloved by the animals that he can dial up a wildebeest stampede and a batch of crocodilians to menace his enemies.
Tarzan is now a superhero, and Jane is impossibly beautiful. Marvell Comics couldn’t have dreamed up more sumptuous humans.
How are mere mortals to relate to characters like these?
2. The film goes to some lengths to portray Jane as strong and feisty (“I’m not a damsel!”) and Tarzan’s African friends as honorable equals, but the plot necessarily requires Tarzan, the white guy who never gets a suntan, to rescue everybody. The days when this sort of thing will sell may be drawing to a close.