The Legend of Tarzan

Posted on June 30, 2016 at 4:15 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue
Profanity: Some racist epithets and mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing and graphic images and scary animals
Diversity Issues: Historical abuse and enslavement
Date Released to Theaters: July 1, 2016

Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
“The Legend of Tarzan” gets some things right. The swinging through the trees is exhilarating. Alexander Skarsgård (Tarzan/John) and Margot Robbie (Jane) are beautiful to look at, as is the African scenery. The CGI animals are pretty good. Thankfully, other than a few flashbacks, it avoids dwelling on the over-familiar origin story. And it is nice to see a shift from the colonialist perspective of some Tarzan stories to recognition of the real-life atrocities inflicted by Belgium’s King Leopold on the African natives, exploiting their resources and enslaving their people.

But there’s a lot the movie does not get right. It’s not terrible; it’s just oddly off, as though it was assembled by a committee that didn’t communicate with each other very well. The first problem is that Tarzan is depressed. I do not know why people seem to think that we somehow make classic literary characters more sophisticated or modern by making them depressed, but I’ve had enough of it. We’ve already had a depressed Batman and a depressed Superman this year. We don’t need a depressed Tarzan. Tarzan, now using his birth name of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, is living in England when we first see him. Presented with an invitation to return to the Congo as the guest of King Leopold, he declines. Lifting a pinky as he sips from a porcelain teacup to demonstrate just how far he has come from running naked through the jungle, he explains simply, “It’s too hot.” He does not want to go back. But an American named George Washington Williams (played by Samuel L. Jackson and a toupee) persuades him to return, so he can investigate charges of abuse and enslavement. Jane is thrilled to return to Africa, and John reluctantly agrees to let her come along.

The invitation from the King was engineered by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, in his usual ultra-civil, ultra-evil mode). If he can deliver John to Chief Mbonga (a regal Djimon Hounsou) the chief will give him access to the diamond mines. When John escapes, Rom takes Jane and some of her tribal friends prisoner.

There’s an unfinished quality to the film. The tone shifts from a literally heavy-handed early image of a cruel hand wrapped in a rosary ripping a flower from its stem to some awkward and anachronistic attempts at humor (Samuel L. Jackson after a diplomatic speech: “And I thought the Civil War was long!”), and distracting random camera-swooping. But the real drag on the film’s momentum is Tarzan himself, who is so morose that the energy seeps out of the story. Reportedly, Skarsgård spent six months working out all day. He looks great, but to be honest he already looked great, and the fixation with male or female movie stars remaking their bodies for roles is barbaric. What needed the work was the script.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence, guns, spears, explosions, predator animals some disturbing images, characters injured and killed, some sexual references, and brief strong and racist language.

Family discussion: Why did John and Jane have different views about going back to Africa? How did John’s idea of honor change and why?

If you like this, try: the many other movie and television portrayals of Tarzan and the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Movies -- format Remake
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