The last live-action Tarzan movie was released in 1998, and the least that can be said about it is that it didn’t make a lasting impression. In that regard it’s odd to see that both “Tarzan and the Lost City” and “The Legend of Tarzan” share many similarities! Both begin in London where Tarzan leads a gentrified life as John Clayton the Third. Particular circumstances lead him back to Africa, where he has to deal with a chief mercenary whose men are in love with their Gatling machinegun…
So, what makes the difference in this new and excellent Legend of Tarzan? First, the actors. If Casper Van Dien indeed had the physicality worthy of Tarzan, his character wasn’t very complex. Alexander Skarsgard gives us on the other hand every facet of a much more complicated character than we saw before. He highlights both the animal side of the character, and his more civilized… and funny side! We sometimes forget how humor always played a part in the character as he was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. A somewhat cynical humor, and sometimes even quite dark. But I didn’t expect the best joke of the movie to be of sexual nature! You’ll see, it’s somewhat crude but very effective! Not sure how the Old Master would have reacted though... The character of Jane is very well acted by Margot Robbie, but contrary of what you will read in interviews, the screenwriters and filmmakers do all they can to hide the fact that Jane is indeed, in the movie, a true damsel in distress!
As in 1998, the movie uses the Opar City in the script, but still without featuring its inhabitants, including the beautiful priestess La, a character very well known and loved by fans!
But what really makes a huge difference in this movie, is the jungle itself. In "Tarzan and the Lost City ", the jungle is pretty much Disneyland. "It's a wonderful life" in the jungle. Everything here is bright, we’re having fun in the trees... Nothing of the sort in the new movie. The jungle is as Burroughs writes about it in 1912, the place of every danger. It’s dark, moisty, hostile, and the creatures that lives there are dangerous, and first of all the Manganis. Gorillas? No, and it’s pointed out in the movie. Gorillas are sweet compared to Manganis!
And there’s finally the historical context, exposing to the world the crimes of King Léopold II of Belgium, who by the way of his henchman, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz, free-wheeling in a familiar territory, not great but effective), is enslaving the population. A true genocide will be uncovered by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who in real life wrote an open letter denouncing the crimes in 1890. A good idea at the start, but which constantly threatens to drag the movie down. It’s pretty simple, each time a new character uses a map to deliver some more exposition (which happens at least three times in the movie!), I felt compelled to throw something at the screen! It’s like what happened also in John Carter, where screenwriters transformed what was basically a simple love story into a potentially galactic threat. The characters in The Legend of Tarzan, as in John Carter, are sufficiently strong and well realized to carry on their shoulders the whole movie, without the need to add an epic menace on top of that.
Because what I will mostly remember from this movie, is a romance that for once works on the screen. The alchemy between Margot Robbie and Alexander Skarsgard feels real. The last world is for both of them, and I especially like the fact that the movie doesn’t set up a sequel! It’s becoming so rare nowadays... The emotion is there on the screen numerous times, and notably in the many flashbacks that evokes Tarzan’s youth. Some are even very moving.
Special mention about the extraordinary Djimon Hounsou, who plays Mbonga. He has very few scenes, but they are especially moving. They’re even perhaps the best in the whole movie, during his fight with Tarzan.
Last of all, two things to point out. First, the very special use of a rosary that I suspect would have been a blast for the atheist that was Edgar Rice Burroughs. Second, the absence of John Hurt, who had been announced as playing the part of Jane’s father, Archimedes Q. Porter. He has disappeared from the credits!
Of course I strongly recommend the movie. Viewers have applauded at the end of the showing, which I found unusual. To say it all, I always thought odd to hear people applauding in a theater, where no artist involved can hear them!
Whatever is its fate at the box-office, it’s the closest we ever had of a Tarzan movie as Edgar Rice Burroughs imagined him some 104 years ago, which is no mean feat!
(see below my e-ticket for the showing, in good company! The 3D add absolutely nothing, except in one scene involving a tight necklace)