So, I went and saw The Legend of Tarzan, the latest entry in a long, long series of movies based – with varying degrees of respect for the original – on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Mentioning Burroughs and his books straight away is, I think, important, because in the last few days I saw a few reviews that were obviously written by people that has no familiarity whatsoever with the Tarzan novels, and only a passing familiarity with other Tarzan movies.
And here, the point becomes interesting: is it possible to consider The Legend of Tarzan separately from the huge body of works that came before, and most of all, can the two approaches – the movie as a stand-alone work and as the last element in along chain of works – lead to radically different perceptions of the movie?
I saw The Legend of Tarzan in the Sociale movie theater in Nizza Monferrato.
The place is a small venue that doubles as a theater – so, no IMAX screen, no ultratech… only a digital projection system with a good Dolby sound.
And it was fine with me – very fine. Because to me, Tarzan movies mean small cinemas in the periphery of a big town. Places that opened only on the weekend, or that were managed by the parish.
To me this has always been “the Tarzan experience” – a small crowded cinema, with kids unashamedly cheering their hero on.
There were eight of us last night at the premiere of The Legend of Tarzan.
No cheering kids, no sound of candies being unwrapped. Just me and my brother, some anonymous guys, a bloke perpetually fingering his smartphone, and two kids on a date necking in the last row.
But on with the movie.
The film picks up John Clayton’s story eight years after his return to England – and it will show us Clayton/Tarzan’s story in flashbacks.
This device works nicely – it sums up the Tarzan mythos quickly and efficiently, it will certainly please the old fans while bringing up to date painlessly the mundanes.
We are introduced to Jane, and to George Washington Williams – a character that will serve multiple purposes within the narrative.
I will not summarize the story – let us just say that it does not follow the Burroughs novels but it does steal from various books many of its set-pieces.
What I found interesting was the portrayal of Tarzan and Jane, and as I mentioned, the role played by George Washington Williams.
Tarzan (Aleksander Skarsgård) is an unexpectedly reflexive action here – and this is just perfect. Tarzan is represented not as a wild man of the jungle, but rather as a civilized man that can divest himself of his civilization, and thus fit into the jungle that was his childhood home. Clayton/Tarzan is thus suspended between two worlds, and a perfect inhabitant of both. This always was – to me – one of the most sophisticated and intriguing traits of the original Burroughs character, and it was great to see that the writers on this movie got it right.
Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) has been updated and made much more pro-active than in previous movies – but being a Burroughs heroine she was never just a damsel in distress to begin with. She is shown as independent and resourceful, and is certainly the right mate for both Clayton and Tarzan. Once again, excellent writing.
George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) now… this is really a great piece of writing. First, because the movie puts a historical character in the story, thus tying the imaginary Africa of Burroughs with the real, historical Africa of the 19th century. But there’s more. Because when the situation gets rough and Tarzan comes to the fore, it is Williams (an African-American) that plays the role of the civilized man, as a counterpart to the Lord of the Jungle.
This incidentally, caused a blogger I read to cry “racists!!” because (bear with me)
blond Caucasian Tarzan explains how things work in Africa to a man of color, a typical example of the white savior syndrome yadda-yadda
Yes, apparently there’s people out there convinced that all persons of color have an intimate familiarity with jungle life. And they are ready to lecture us on racism.
But back to Williams, that also acts as comedy relief and as the hero’s sidekick – the one that can say the things the hero is too heroic to say. And indeed, Samuel L. Jackson’s character talks a lot, and is counterpointed by Aleksander Skarsgård mostly silent performance.
So, all in all, great casting (Cristoph Waltz is a great sociopath of a bad guy) and great characters, in a story that gets somewhat confused in the end – but all hell’s breaking loose, so we won’t complain about plot holes.
The movie is a good actioneer with some spectacular sceneries, and as such it stands on its own legs.
It is also a respectful, intelligent and polished addition to the Tarzan canon, and as such will probably make old fans very happy.
I know this fan is.