Film adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan serials have been notorious for being unspectacular. Questionable clothing choices and over-the-top chest beating has repeatedly turned this story into something more of a joke than serious film material.
Enter David Yates.
Known for his work on Harry Potter, Yates was destined to try to turn Tarzan into something darker and more ethically implicit than has previously been attempted. Darker, he has definitely achieved. From the vast landscape shots of breath-taking, misty African jungles to the dramatic, rather sinister opening song ‘Opar’ composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams, Yates immediately immerses us in a world far from the brightly coloured Disney animation.
Even Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) seems more of a brooding, Mr. Rochester-esque figure than the typical Lord of the Jungle. We meet Lord Greystoke eight years on from leaving his African home, playing the life of a gentleman in monochrome London while living in his rather grand, rather grey ancestral home with his beloved Jane (Margot Robbie). But, despite his attempts, his mind and heart keep sweeping back to the jungle.
When invited by royal invitation from King Leopold II of Belgium to return to Africa, it doesn’t take John (Tarzan) and Jane long before they are retracing their former life. But this isn’t a happy holiday of reminiscing. Accompanied by the solider-turned-politician George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), the trio quickly find themselves in a more dangerous place than they were expecting, as the reality of what has become of their home quickly becomes apparent. When Jane is rather unimaginatively captured by the baddie Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), John and George immediately set off on a film-long chase after the damsel in distress, swinging from some vines along the way.
Although Legend is rather disappointingly conventional in its plot, with John and George spending the majority of the film working towards heroically saving the kidnapped damsel, the modern sentiments Yates has infused in the film compensate for the cliché storyline. Set in the Congo Free State of the late 19th century, the mysterious jungle visuals are coupled with a darker context of slavery and despotic brutality of the time era. Using this historical background to set his film against, Yates promotes a Tarzan that not only fights to win back his Jane, but to help free his old friends from their colonialist rulers.
But it’s not all doom, gloom and history lessons.
Jane and Tarzan are given a lick of new paint. Although Skarsgård plays a rather brooding Tarzan, internally battling between his ape-upbringing and his English Lord heritage, he does add a sense of reserved humour to the character. This is played upon brilliantly in the relationship between Tarzan and George, which provides snippets of light-hearted and well-needed comic relief in such an action and content heavy film. Jackson as always really brings the character to life, giving us a sarcastic, heartwarming George that brings such an important historical figure as Williams down to earth.
Despite, still to a degree playing the damsel, (the fault of the plot rather than the actress) Robbie gives us a spirited, fiercer, sexier Jane who although is less bookish than Disney’s heroine, is equally as compassionate and brave, if not more so. Luckily, the sincerity of Jane and Tarzan’s relationship is also unspoiled by Yates, with memories of their early relationship and their heartbreaking reunion at the end making it even more sweet. This is an element of the story that I felt was a little under-developed. But then again, I’m a soppy romantic, so I would want more lovey-dovey bits.
Despite Yates attempt to reimagine Tarzan into something more critically valuable, Legend does fall short of its potential in this respect. Coming rather unluckily after Jon Favreau‘s superb Jungle Book, the intense and often unimpressive use of computer graphics go from generating blindingly fast paced action scenes to the downright unrealistic. Super powerful wildebeest jumping two stories high through buildings is simply ridiculous.
Then there’s the overwhelming amount of material added to the story. Action-packed fight scenes, fast moving sequences and a historical background feel OTT anyway. Yet on top of all this, Yates decided to squish two films into one.
I am a fan of combining Tarzan’s return to Africa with the original Tarzan story. Throughout the plot, the action is dotted with flashbacks and memories from Jane and Tarzan’s early relationship. We don’t become bored with seeing the same story played out again with new faces. Instead, we are given a bit of the old and familiar mixed in with the new. By itself, this interweaving of flashbacks, memories and ongoing action is powerfully emotive and effective. But combined with an already jam-packed film, it’s becomes the tipping point from brilliant to overdone.
The greatest shortcoming of all though, is the inconsistencies in the moral sentiments Yates tries to emphasise. Despite the great lengths gone to rebrand Burrough’s Tarzan from the imperialist dream of the white Lord of the Jungle, rather disappointingly his white Englishman supremacy comes in at the end. According to Tarzan, as he says to chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), as the ape-man he had no honour. In one line, the moral sentiments of the film are ruined. The white, educated gentleman John Clayton is superior from his former life amongst the animals because now he is honourable. Wonderful. Two steps forward, one step back.
But despite this flaw, the noble intentions of the film are not completely overshadowed. The inclusion of African languages and music is a small but needed step towards recasting Tarzan as the friend instead of superior of the indigenous people. Yates notably develops Tarzan’s relationship with the local tribes. Instead of an outsider, he and Jane are their extended family. And in the end, they chose them over the colonial powerhouse of England to be their home.
Despite these short comings, I did really enjoy Yates’ Legend. The dramatic, darker take on the story is much more exhilarating and visually interesting than previous versions. Despite overdoing the added material, the attempt to couple this story with significant historical events was an ingenious thought. Just not completely perfected. By trying to fit so much into one film, Yates managed to miss the mark this film could have easily surpassed. But it was still an enjoyable watch, and a film I would watch again, if not for the superb cast or wonderful soundtrack and setting, but to get a chance to fully take in all the material it squishes into 2 hours.