Him Tarzan, you left cold



The Legend of Tarzan

Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson


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Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan was a product of its time – back when it was perfectly legitimate, and even exciting, to imagine the story of how an English nobleman, bred by apes, ended up talking to animals, leading the African people, and being doted on by a subservient wife.

But the character’s capacity to excite contemporary audiences was probably doomed to extinction the day political correctness dawned.

Tarzan is the product of a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) writer, educated largely in the 19th century, whose vision of Africa was strictly that of a colonial imperialist, and whose impressions of women were equally as outdated.

I wonder whether anyone born after 1970 has the slightest clue what to make of this guy in the loincloth, and, since 1980, Hollywood has had a string of flops with the character to prove it. Do kids still read Burroughs’ books today?

And so it is with this in mind that one should view the latest Tarzan offering, if one is to gain maximum enjoyment. The lord of the jungle is a century-old superhero, and his adventures take place during a time of insensitive racial and gender representations, not to mention the occasional case of animal cruelty.

As the movie starts, Tarzan (or Lord Greystoke, as he is rightly known, played by Alexander Skarsgard, son of Stellan) is already ensconced in his role as a member of the English Parliament. He is asked to resume his Tarzan role and help the debt-ridden Belgian government steal sacred diamonds from the Congo, but in reality it is a way for Belgian schemer Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to deliver Tarzan to Congolese tribe leader King Mbonga, who wants to exact revenge on him for the death of his son.

Along the way, Samuel L Jackson fills his annual quota of fantasy movie roles by portraying US emissary George Washington Williams, tagging along to ensure Congolese civilians aren’t being enslaved.

The older generation will be familiar with Tarzan’s origins, but for the younger audiences, flashback scenes to how his parents died and his subsequent adoption by apes may prove confusing, for they do not reveal how he rose to become champion of the African lands. They will be equally bemused as to how Tarzan can communicate so easily with apes, ostriches, elephants, lions, water buffalo, crocodiles and a whole menagerie of other forest fauna.

The Congo, as it turns out, is home to several different tribes of varying hues, yet it sticks out like a sore thumb that none of them question the appearance of George, an educated black man clothed in Western gear and speaking a different dialect. While he eventually helps save Tarzan in a moment of peril, it does seem his inclusion as an improbable sidekick was simply to serve as a counterpoint to any suggestion of racial discrimination.

Then there's Jane (Australian Margot Robbie), who, while not exactly a damsel in distress, isn't much else. As Tarzan’s wife, she insists upon joining his journey home, eventually falling into Rom's clutches, and conveniently being used as bait to lure our hero into a trap.

There are some nice scenes throughout which reflect Burrough’s visions. Tarzan swings through the jungle with grace and power, and his connections with the animals are conveyed well. If anything, Skarsgard is too stoic, although perhaps the script called for a humourless hero.

If this were a movie about another Burroughs’ creation, John Carter of Mars, battling aliens on some exotic world, audiences would certainly find it enthralling. But trying to envisage an Earthman taking on and talking to animal herds and creating stampedes by himself will require a greater suspension of belief.

Him Tarzan, me half-satisfied.

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