The Legend of Tarzan

The Legend of Tarzan

In Theatres: 
Jul 01, 2016
Running Time: 
110 minutes

I saw The Legend of Tarzan because I was curious. The very basis of Tarzan is a typical racist and colonialist fantasy of returning to the “natural state” of man using “Africa” as a backdrop as the ultimate freedom. A white man born to the Congolese jungle is raised by wild animals.  He communicates with them and when he is returned to British civilization, they say he’s mastered animals. Despite living most of his life in the Congo, he falls in love with the first white woman he sees. I was curious to know how (beyond the question of why do this at all. Isn’t one The Jungle Book enough?), in 2016, the era of #OscarsSoWhite and the demand for greater diversity in front of and behind the camera, can Disney reconfigure this 19th century colonialist wet dream into something more palatable?

Taking place in King Leopold’s Congo, this updated live action version of Tarzan admits to the slavery and depraved exploitation of the Congo by the Belgian king and his Force Publique. However, instead of rubber being the item of desire, they seek diamonds to fund their continued plundering. After making a deal with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) for the location of the diamonds in exchange for Tarzan, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) deceives John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård aka Tarzan) into returning to the Congo. From there we see incredible CGI wildlife, wonderfully lush forests, fight scenes, chases, stampedes, vine swinging, beauty shots of Jane (Margot Robbie) being used as bait and shackled for most of the film, and finally lots of beautiful Swedish abs.

Clearly Disney understands racism is the foundation of Tarzan, and they took several steps to try and mitigate this. Soon after Tarzan and Jane reunite with some indigenous peoples (who greet them with smiles and song, yet ignore George Washington Williams, the only other black person), the Force Publique raze the village, kidnapping several people (including Jane), setting fire to their homes and murdering their Chief. When Tarzan escapes their trap, he’s understandably enraged. George Washington Williams (who is a refreshing addition, considering the real Williams actually did travel to the Congo to document the atrocities being committed there, portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson) attempts to reason with him, but Tarzan growls at him with a focused ferocity, “They have my wife! And their family!” Yet, it still feels like an afterthought. After all, they may avoided this trouble had Tarzan never returned.

We do get to see two different groups of Congolese people who are both active and present in their fight against Belgium colonization, but we only know them because Tarzan has returned. One group reveres him and sings the Legend of Tarzan. The other group despises and wants him dead. They’re never referred to as uncivilized, they are not magical, nor are they portrayed as cannibals (as previous iterations have done), but it would have been nice to see that they exist outside of Tarzan.

There’s nothing necessary about The Legend of Tarzan. The CGI strains and shows its limits when it comes to see animals seen in the same frame as the actors and during thevine swinging scenes. As a popcorn summer film, it limps across the finish line. The tepidness cannot be blamed on the actors, the setting, and not even the bad CGI. It’s the story of Tarzan himself.

The Jungle Book and Tarzan have been been on the silver screen, animated and live action, at least a baker’s dozen times. If Hollywood wants to use CGI to illustrate these lush, larger than suburban westernized life landscapes, populated with indigenous peoples, these peoples have stories of their own. Stories unique to anything Hollywood has produced. Tales full of magic, heroism, comedy, song, and culture. It is time to leave behind this irresponsible and dangerous single story. We don’t need colonizers as an audience entry point to stories based in other countries and cultures to enjoy and relate to the narrative; we just need hear them from the people that lived them.

There is also a problem with chronological time. We are told via opening text that this takes place during 1884, yet, during a later scene George refers to a gun being an 1886 model. Further, we learn that George’s findings of the shame of Belgium are released to the world in 1890, which is followed by a scene of Jane and Tarzan back in the Congo “one year later’.  What is the truth? I guess there are only so many questions oiled up Swedish abs can answer.

Maria Jackson
Review by Maria Jackson
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