The wilderness holds great allure for us, especially in the rather oxymoronic present when people are both jaded with and addicted to the electronic wonders of contemporary civilisation. If only we could devolve, and return to a primeval way of being, right? But as Tarzan (an unfairly attractive Alexander Skarsgård in an understated portrayal) warns right in the beginning, it isn’t easy; the jungle is unforgiving and consumes everything, except the strong.
The film begins by showing us the embodiment of strength, Tarzan, bedecked in Victorian splendour and living in the U.K. with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). “I am not Tarzan. I am John Clayton the third, member of the House of Lords,” he reminds a government official (and himself too, perhaps?), when requested to visit Africa to help investigate some nasty claims about King Leopold II of Belgium, whom history holds responsible for the systematic exploitation of the Congo Free State. John Clayton the third, not Tarzan, is a melancholy personality, like a beast in a constricting cage, and so, you can see why the invitation to visit the glorious wilderness of Africa would be torturously enticing for him.
But he refuses as it isn’t safe, mainly because tribal chief Mbonga of Congo (Djimon Hounsou) can’t wait to finish him off. Moreover, he’s happily married to Jane, who, for occupation, regales children with animal-related trivia, which includes asking them what the sound of her favourite bird is. John, of course, is in the vicinity and tweets — no, not the tweet you are thinking about.
Director: David Yates
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson
Storyline: A decade after Tarzan leaves Africa for England, he returns and falls into danger
In between these developments, director David Yates interjects with glimpses of Tarzan’s past: growing up with the apes, learning the ways of the jungle, meeting Jane… I couldn’t but wonder how he got so civilised. It must not have been easy for him at all, and his early days adjusting to civilised life in England must have been the stuff of jokes, but The Legend of Tarzan isn’t the sort of film that takes itself lightly.
On the contrary, it takes on all sorts of issues including white supremacy, tribal exploitation, slavery… you get the idea. In films such as this, it’s almost mandatory that you have a white man playing the villain, partly to try and offset the damage caused by having another playing the saviour. And so, Christoph Waltz plays Captain Leon Rom, a Christoph Waltz-like villain, who’s so suave that after having his hostage taken away in chains during the middle of dinner, he’s still particular about keeping her knife and fork in position. So proper is he that Jane, when under some stress and in search of an insult, notes, “The right side of your moustache is lower than your left.” She knows that’d suffice to ruin his sleep that night.
Leon Rom, despite these quirks, is no great adversary. You never really feel that Tarzan and Jane are ever in serious danger. Even Jane, I think, knows it all along, which explains her perennial smug smile even when held captive and surrounded by enemies.
The actor, who truly radiates light and life into the film, is Samuel L. Jackson, as George Washington Williams, the gun-toting companion of Tarzan, who has the impossible task of keeping up with him in the African wilderness. He invigorates the film with some much-needed humour, and is an able foil to the melancholy of John. But John turns into Tarzan, and sheds his gloom when he eventually treks the vast landscapes of African wilderness, where you get the film’s most enjoyable and warmest parts.
When he encounters lionesses and kneels down to rub his face against theirs, you recognise that he’s finally free from the shackles of civilisation. He’s almost gleeful to be in their company, and when later, a herd of ostriches thunder past George and him, he even loosens up so much that he begins doling out animal advice to George. “It’s a male ostrich. If you get too close, his talons will disembowel you.” Africa is his home, his territory, and it is here that he truly belongs and he doesn’t let go of an opportunity to assert his supremacy.
David Yates doesn’t stop with ostriches, of course. You’re shown apes. And then, a herd of African elephants. Much later, a pod of hippos. These aren’t particularly well-integrated into the storyline, and I didn’t quite feel any great sense of wonder if that’s what Yates was going for. All these bits are designed to lead us to the great, epic finale — you know, man vs beast, spears vs guns, tribals vs soldiers. But the problem is, it never really comes.
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