Monday, December 12, 2016

"Can you really talk to animals?" The Legend of Tarzan review

I certainly don't pretend to be a Tarzan expert; although I have enjoyed some Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, the Tarzan books haven't interested me; I've watched a few Tarzan movies and found them basically unremarkable (or disastrously awful); and while comic books are one of my favourite mediums and the Tarzan comic strip is considered legendary, I find it overwritten and uninteresting.

And yet, I became fascinated by this year's film The Legend of Tarzan. Certainly fans of the novels were excited as this film drew in references to the tribes, apes and locales which had heretofore been ignored in film adaptations and I was happy to see these fans pleased. However, my interest in this film didn't come from the Burroughs novels but a different book entirely: Adam Hochchild's King Leopold's Ghost.

During my first visit to Africa in 2011 I found the book King Leopold's Ghost in my uncle's study (where my bed was) and began reading it in the evenings. This book made an indelible impression on me and how I came to interpret the history of Africa. Perhaps it sounds strange to you that while I was living day-to-day in contemporary Africa I spent my nights delving into historical Africa, but King Leopold's Ghost gave me an education which I sorely needed, as nothing in my formal education had delved into the African continent. I had wondered why colonialism was considered an evil practice and this book explained why: because, at it's heart, it makes entire nations into slave states.

Thus, when I learned two of the real people I learned of in that book - George Washington Williams (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) - were characters in this new Tarzan picture. Fictionalized versions of both men, to be sure, but I was fascinated to see elements from King Leopold's Ghost working their way into mainstream popular culture.

The Legend of Tarzan was a fairly decent picture, as it happens. Alexander Skarsgard played him as yet another hero-who-resists-the-call-thank-you-for-ruining-pop-culture-Joseph-Campbell character but his initial reasons for denying his identity as a jungle lord were interesting and it meant the film gradually worked its way up to the familiar image of shirtless, vine-swining Tarzan.

It's kind of disappointing to see the once-great Djimon Hounsou reduced to playing bad guys (as in here and Guardians of the Galaxy) but his character was at least given some dignity. It also helped that while Hounsou character is basically the stock evil African chief character, he's not the primary antagonist - Leon Rom and his fellow white colonialists are the true villains. Tarzan is likewise less of a great white saviour in this film as he shares the heroic spotlight with Williams and many of the fantastic feats Tarzan performs are shown to be things other Africans. It staves off the many assumptions and implications of earlier Tarzan tales.

The film is mostly a reasonably believable historical picture but for the film's Jane, played by Margot Robbie. Robbie's Jane has a cynical edge which feels a little too 21st century in perspective. In one notable instance, Rom talks to Jane about the rosary his Catholic priest gave him. "Sounds like you were very close," Jane remarks acidly. We of the 21st century understand that Robbie's Jane is alluding to Rom's priest having a pedophiliac interest in him when he was a child, but does that make sense in a story set well over 100+ years ago? To whatever extent that practice was going on in Rom's day and time it was definitely much less-publicized than today. Indeed, Rom makes no visible reaction to Jane's remark as Waltz plays him as a man of his own time, not an anachronism like Robbie's performance.

It's a perfectly decent film, a lot more sober than the typical Tarzan tale.

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