29 April 2022

52 for '22: The Legend of Tarzan

MovieThe Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Method: Netflix DVD

On that Michael Phelps diet. Or the Johnny Weismueller diet!

Why Did I watch this?

Back in the summer of 2016 this movie dropped along with two others that I had no interest in seeing. I don't know why Tarzan stuck in my mind for the past six years. I guess I read some reviews that it was good actually, and the cast was phenomenal (even though I forgot everyone who was in it except for Skarsgard by the time I watched it this week). Something about this stuck in my head, maybe just for being a big recognizable IP, which is definitely exactly what they want with this stuff. Also, anyone who reads this site should know my fondness for failed blockbusters. I really like understanding what makes them tick while other films inexplicably take off. And I'm always attracted to films that may have been underappreciated and turn out to be a hidden gem, buried at the time by unfair criticism. To be fair, that didn't turn out to be what was going on with Tarzan, but we're surging ahead anyway. I guess with The Northman (2022) I was also into Skarsgard's other famous shirtless performance.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Reading that preview I wrote in 2016 again, I apparently knew pretty much everything going into this. It had Tarzan returning to the jungle, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Sam Jackson. But I definitely forgot all of that by the time I watched it in 2022. It makes me think of recent discourse about the state of streaming, and how no one can remember a movie anymore because we don't watch commercials and trailers all the time. Even if we didn't see a movie, we felt like we did. At one point my wife said to me, "Oh, I remember this scene from the commercials!" and that's totally what this film was. Looking back, it feels like the last gasp of a blockbuster era pre-cord cutting.

How Was It?

There are a lot of movies that deserve a fair shake after being unfairly scorned upon box office release. The Legend of Tarzan is not one of them. There isn't much of anything that is good in this film. It operates as both an origin story for Tarzan, told through flashbacks, and as a new story about Tarzan returning to the Belgian Congo after years spent as a gentleman exploring his rightful home as an Earl in England. BUT IS the jungle his rightful home?!

I with the film had focused more on its actual premise rather than being a vehicle to explore an ancient IP. The deal is that an American ambassador, played by Sam Jackson, suspects the King of Belgium is up to some shady shit in the heart of Africa. He wants Tarzan to investigate. At the same time, the King has ostensibly invited Tarzan down on a goodwill tour (in actuality that is a ruse by Christoph Waltz to lure Tarzan back home so he can present him to Djimon Hounsou in exchange for diamonds so Djimon can get revenge for Tarzan killing his son when he was in full ape mode). As I'm saying it now, it sounds needlessly complicated, but the film actually does a pretty competent job laying out its inciting incident and genuinely establishing every character's motivation.

But then that's quickly abandoned. This movie doesn't seem to be able to find what it wants to be. This could have been a cool film of the characters investigating the Congo and Tarzan being slowly pulled back into his old ways. The latter does happen, and I enjoyed how slowly he starts losing articles of clothing to become the Tarzan we all know and love. But then Christoph Waltz kidnaps Margot Robbie and it's just kind of a typical damsel in distress plot.

It works because every actor is at the top of their game. It's bizarre that Christoph, Margot, and Sam have two Academy Awards between the three of them, and they're both Christoph Waltz's. It makes me think how deserving the other two are. I can't believe they haven't been in more films together - Waltz and Jackson had Django Unchained (2012), but for being some of the biggest IT stars of the past decade Tarzan is their shining collab.

I was looking up Alexander Skarsgard because I feel like I like him, but his only good role I remember is War on Everyone (2016) which I enjoyed. This role feels similar to his totally phoned in performance in Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) where he just kind of shows up and does his role without much going on there. It's fine, but the definition of bland. Truthfully, there's just not a lot to Tarzan here, but you can add depth to that conflict of a man torn between worlds. Robbie also has the definition of a thankless female role, but she adds a tremendous amount of personality and energy to the part.

The color composition in this film is bizarre. Jane's introduction scene looks like a Monty Python cartoon. There's something wrong with her hair, it's like, too bright for the rest of the film or something. There is quite a bit of this, just terribly composed shots and really dodgy CGI. At some points the apes didn't look like they had fur on them. I wasn't watching on the greatest TV, but this is unacceptable in a post-Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) world. The ending finale as well, which features wildebeest busting through walls and knocking over brass cannons looks cheap as hell (for all the wackiness of a Tarzan movie, a gnu effortlessly knocking a cannon actually really took me out of the movie). When we complain about misused CGI nonsense and weightlessness, I hate to say that The Legend of Tarzan is a poster child.

And I like when films change up their colors, but every scene in this film was dramatically different. There are really green forests, really yellow fields, really blue manors, and really white...random scenes. Don't get me wrong, variety is good, and it was very helpful in distinguishing flashback scenes, but it felt all over the place, like there was no consistent cinematographer with a coherent vision.

This blame should mostly fall on director David Yates, who after four pretty good Harry Potter films has really proven himself to have a turd of a career. All he's done since then is this and all three (so far!) Fantastic Beasts films. It's like he's the king of generic Hollywood filmmaking that demonstrates how broken Hollywood is. And seeing Fantastic Beasts put this more in perspective - there's no planning or interest in creativity, just product here. I was struck by how generic the soundtrack was, like, it could have been for any movie ever. This is the kind of soundtrack that gets put in trailers because it works anywhere.

It definitely takes itself too seriously as well. You need to lean into the ridiculousness of this. Get George of the Jungle (1997) up in here. He DOES do the yell, but it's out of madness instead of vine swinging fun. Christoph Waltz comments on it, but we need a bit more. Movies are so afraid that they won't be taken seriously for some reason, but you just get bland and awkward instead, because the PREMISE is insane!

Should we talk about the politics of it all? The concept of Tarzan is inherently problematic - let's get that out of the way right now. A white dude left alone to become King of the Jungle has so many difficult implications of colonialism, native narrative hijacking, and a crystal clear white savior complex. But uhhh...yeah do NOT replace Tarzan with a black guy as King of the Apes. That...is not good. It's not like we need to ignore what came before us, but we also definitely need to admit that what worked a hundred years ago when the only voices were white men, does not necessarily apply today, even if the IP is recognizable.

The film tries to grapple with this. Sort of. It has a clear anti-colonialist and anti-slavery bend, but it also likes to present the Britain and America of 1890 as egalitarian societies ready to step in and persecute those wicked Belgians for crimes in Africa. Bullshit. And we never even see the Belgian King, who is like, the main villain! For a movie that spends most of its time in Africa, we also never really see the African perspective. Even in the intro when Christoph Waltz is ambushed by Djimon's tribe, it's from the white point of view. And they are clearly warrior savages, which I thought we got past after the mid-2000s racist native trifecta of King Kong (2005), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) that found that Pacific Islander, Caribbean, and Incan cultures are all generic and identical. Why not add Africa to that list?! I don't know, man. It's tough in a post-Black Panther (2018) world to sit through this shit.

Like I said, the film tries, but I don't think you can do anything with this premise anymore. Tarzan joins Robin Hood and King Arthur as juicy recognizable public domain IPs that Hollywood continues to be obsessed with because they're recognizable stories that can drive people into seats. But no one actually cares about these anymore. It's a shame that all our public domain stories feature bland white dudes - if only we had those diverse voices hundreds of years ago we could be making all kinds of interesting movies! Oh wait, we did get 47 Ronin (2013). Crap.

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