*warning: there are full and almost complete spoilers for the film below, turn back now if you don’t want the film to be spoiled for you!!!
Although I am familiar with the story of Tarzan, the only film version I had seen prior to Saturday was Disney’s 1999 animated version. The Legend of Tarzan was my first time seeing a live-action version of the Tarzan story and I have to say, it was completely worth it!
First, I have to say that this is not quite the traditional version of the story because, when the film opens, Tarzan and Jane have been living in London for almost ten years. Tarzan has claimed his “human” identity of John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke, and has worked very hard to forget that he was ever Tarzan. He puts on a good front, but in the opening scene where we first see Tarzan, it was clear to me that the man was miserable. He seemed bored with everything, and was totally in denial about who he really was, on the inside.
That’s the big theme of this movie: accepting who you really are, not what society expects you to be. In this case, Tarzan/John Clayton is attempting to live up to the wishes of his late father, who, in a letter to his then-infant son, repeatedly expressed the point that “London is your home, not this place.”
Tarzan’s wife Jane (Margot Robbie) however, is not in denial and when an invitation to visit the African Congo is extended to Tarzan, Jane insists on coming along, as she wants to go “home” to where she grew up.
Even here in England though, in the vast expanse of Greystoke manner, Tarzan shows subtle signs that he has not quite forgotten the jungle. For one, he still enjoys eating raw eggs. And for another, he is still shown to be quite comfortable climbing trees, as he effortlessly pulls himself up to a branch where Jane is sitting. Reluctantly, he agrees that Jane can come along with him. Accompanying them is Dr. George Williams, played brilliantly by Samuel L. Jackson. His role is clearly that of comic relief, and it absolutely works.
However, the invitation to visit the Congo is a trap. The entire story takes place at a time when Leopold of Belgium is seeking to strengthen his hold on the Congo as a colony. But he’s running out of money to pay his troops so he dispatches Captain Rom (Christoph Waltz) to find the legendary diamonds of Ophar, which he does. But the diamonds are guarded by the tribe led by Chief Mbonga, and he has reason to see Tarzan dead. So the two make a deal: if Rom brings Tarzan, Mbonga will let him have as many diamonds as he needs. So Tarzan is lured to Africa, accompanied by Jane, and while visiting the local tribe that once hosted Jane and her father, both are captured by Rom and his men. But before they can reach the boat, Tarzan manages to break free while Jane remains a prisoner.
From this point on, the story revolves around Tarzan shedding his civilized skin and slowly working back to his jungle roots. It’s a fascinating process to watch, and one of my favorite parts of the movie. There are several fights along the way: fighting a train car full of soldiers, and fighting his former ape “brother” who grew up alongside him years ago. While it’s true that Jane spends most of this time as a captive, she is hardly a “damsel-in-distress.” She does what she can to undermine Rom’s progress toward Mbonga’s territory, but she’s limited because her friends from the tribe are being held hostage and will be killed if she makes too much trouble.
Eventually, the two groups (Tarzan and George and Rom, Jane and his men) converge where Mbonga is waiting and things come to a head, which is where my one real gripe comes in. Through a series of flashbacks that tell the story of Tarzan’s childhood in the jungle, we learn that Mbonga’s son killed Tarzan’s ape mother Kala during a rite of passage where the men of the tribe had to hunt gorillas. In revenge, Tarzan chased the young man down and killed him, leaving Mbonga to swear vengeance if he ever got his hands on Tarzan. Considering that a good part of the film revolves around this plot of vengeance, the actual fight between Tarzan and Mbonga…is kind of short. It almost felt anti-climactic, because the big action climax comes a little later. I wish they would have spent a little more time on the tension between Tarzan and Mbonga, but what follows makes up for it fairly well.
Jane is still a prisoner of Rom, but the latter has his diamonds now and the mercenary army they will pay for is getting ready to land at the port. If they come ashore, the Congo will stand no chance against them. But Tarzan has a plan: using his lion and ape friends, he causes a huge wildebeest stampede that storms the port town and collapses most of the buildings. It reminded me very much of a series of events in the original Jungle Book stories where Mowgli commanded the elephants to “let the jungle in” at a particular village. Seeing the town overrun by the wild animals of Africa reminded me of that moment.
Jane is finally saved, but there’s still the matter of Rom to settle. If there’s one thing you don’t do, it’s mess with Tarzan’s wife, so you’ve known for most of the film that there’s no way Rom is getting out of this alive. While fighting on a sinking boat, there comes a moment when Rom seemingly has Tarzan finished, with a strangling cord around his neck. But Tarzan begins to make a strange sound, and Rom asks him what he’s doing. Being raised around the animals of the jungle, Tarzan is a master of mimicking various animal calls, particularly mating calls. And in this case, he’s using the mating call of the crocodile to summon crocodiles to the boat. Large hungry crocodiles plus a defenseless Rom…you do the math on how it ends for the villain.
One year later, it’s revealed that Tarzan and Jane have stayed in the jungle, apparently making their home with the same tribe that Jane grew up with. Tarzan is with the men, waiting for something. At last, a commotion comes from the big hut where all the women are gathered and a tribeswoman comes out with a little bundle in her hands: Tarzan and Jane’s child! At the beginning of the story, Tarzan let it slip that he and Jane recently lost a child, whether it was a miscarriage or a young child that died from illness is never specified. Now that they are back “home”, the birth of their child cements that this is where they truly belong.
I’m not sure if there’s a hook for a sequel or not, but I wouldn’t mind if a sequel was made. Overall, this was a very enjoyable film. A handful of moments could’ve been built up more than they were, but I still recommend this film if you like action and adventure.
Also, the musical score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is very well done. This composer is not familiar to me, but I will be sure to keep an eye out for his name in the future. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, with a lot of shooting done on location in Africa. The contrast between the drabness of Greystoke manor and the vivid life found in the jungle is striking.
Final Thoughts: The Legend of Tarzan is a really good movie, Alexander Skarsgard does great justice to the role and Margot Robbie absolutely slays her role as Jane. Christoph Waltz is very believable as the villainous Captain Rom (although for some reason he kept reminding me of Aidan Gillen, who plays “Littlefinger” on Game of Thrones).
Have you seen The Legend of Tarzan? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below.
*poster image is the property of Warner Bros. Pictures
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