At the beginning of this year, I made a list of the 15 films I really, really wanted to see in 2016 (you can read up on the list right here). “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016) was on that list, and as you might remember, I described the film as my “personal guilty pleasure of the cinematic year”. Now that I have finally seen the film, it turns out to have been a very true and suiting description – but not for the reason you might think.
As far as the story goes, you could consider “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016) a kind of sequel to the original Disney animation, which was released back in 1999. Back in the days, the animation ended with Jane joining Tarzan in the jungle and them living happily ever after. In the live-action 2016 version, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) actually went home with Jane (Margot Robbie) and the two have taken up residence in London. Tarzan, who has adopted his British origins, is now called John Clayton and together with his wife, they live on his family estate. But as it goes, John and Jane are drawn back to Africa as ordered by King Leopold of Belgium, where they embark on a journey together with George Washington William (Samuel L. Jackson). However, not everyone is happy with John and Jane’s return to the jungle and a man called Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is determined to eliminate the great Tarzan.
Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård was the chosen one in the search for the perfect Tarzan. Director David Yates has mentioned in interviews that Skarsgård was his first and only choice, because he wanted “a really good actor with a really good body”. That last part was definitely and undeniably met (which resulted in rather enjoyable imagery of Skarsgård dashing through the jungle), but the first part was a bit more tricky. At the beginning of “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016), John and Jane are living in London, a buttoned-up and civilized life as lord and lady. Now, Skarsgård works as Tarzan, dashing through the jungle with strength and determination, but as a British lord, he does not work. Whether it was the poor writing or just poor acting, Skarsgård is non-engaging and boring in the first 20 minutes of the film.
Which brings me to my next point: the writing. On the one hand, “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016) is well thought out. The writers cleverly placed the story at a very interesting and controversial point in history, during King Leopold of Belgium’s merciless colonization of the Congo in the late nineteenth century. This makes the film’s story somewhat more realistic and more in-depth, but the history and the setting is put on the most distant back burner and the focus completely lies on the trivial story of Tarzan saving Jane. I think the writers have definitely missed an opportunity here. If they had focuses more on the historical setting of the story and not been afraid of portraying the horrors and crimes that come with this setting, “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016) would have been much more original, intelligent and resourceful.
The story might be one big cliché, the visuals definitely are not. Director David Yates, who is best known for directing the last four “Harry Potter” films and the upcoming “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (2017), has made sure the look of the film is stunning. The visuals are beautifully made, rich with colors and life-like. The jungle, which is the most important and most frequent setting of “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016), is truly magnificent, incredibly detailed, making it look both beautiful and daunting at the same time. Next to that, the costumes were stunning, like Jane’s dresses and John’s velvet coat while in London, and the animals were gorgeously designed. And because everything is looking so beautiful and life-like, it’s very easy to get drawn into the adventure.
Ultimately, “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016) was much better than I expected. Before seeing the film, I thought it was gonna be a mindless, unintelligent and cliché-driven action film and in some ways, it was. But usually, these mindless action films do not stick; I usually tend to forget them only days after watching. But for some reason, that was not the case with “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016). Even weeks after seeing the film, I remember certain scenes or visuals, just because I thought they were very impressive and engaging. And that’s something you don’t see every day and perhaps the film’s greatest strength. For all it’s faults, it’s actually memorable.