How much effort do you put into a broken cultural property before you just throw up your hands and walk away?
The people who’ve made “The Legend of Tarzan” — a film more than a decade in the works — have done everything they can to make Tarzan the Ape Man relevant to the 21st century. They situate the plot in the sorry colonial politics of the Congo Free State of Belgium’s King Leopold II. They give Jane (Margot Robbie) a whole lot of agency.
The tribes of the Congo basin are portrayed, so far as I can tell, with ethnographic accuracy and respect. Samuel L. Jackson has been cast as a wisecracking, vine-swinging African-American sidekick to help Tarzan defeat the European slavers; his character, George Washington Williams, is based on a real figure, the first Westerner to expose the evils of Leopold’s rule. Issues of blood diamonds, genocide, and species extermination are on the table.
And at the end of the day, this is still a story about a hot British white guy saving the Dark Continent because the people who actually live there don’t have what it takes — can’t bond with the lions, stand tall with the Great Apes, sip tea in the ancestral mansion, and model a loincloth to drive the womenfolk crazy.
Tarzan’s an artifact of (very) Late Romanticism, a pop fantasy of noble savagery and cultural/racial superiority that worked like a dream when pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs penned it just over a century ago. Today the fantasy retains its popcorn appeal (and sex appeal) but crumbles the moment you hold it up to any sort of scrutiny. Which is to say that “The Legend of Tarzan” is enjoyably hokey until it’s not — until an audience can no longer ignore the gaping cognitive dissonance between what we thought about the world then and where we are now.
But how’s the movie, you want to know. And how’s Alexander Skarsgård, whose mournful Euro-hunkitude was established for American audiences over seven seasons of HBO’s “True Blood” and who was the only reason my college-age daughter came along to the screening.
Directed with big-budget professionalism by David Yates, who made the final four “Harry Potter” movies and knows his way around a fantasy, “The Legend of Tarzan” opens in the 1880s as a pensive John Clayton, a.k.a. Lord Greystoke (Skarsgård), languishes in England with his wife, Jane. Clayton periodically flashes back to his golden-lit upbringing by apes after the death of his explorer parents. At times, the cross cutting gets so busy it’s as if we’re simultaneously watching an origin movie and its sequel.
Tarzan is invited back to the Congo to have a look-see at the Belgians’ supposed “improvements” to the country, but the trip is a trap, arranged by the effetely evil slave-trader Leon Rom, who’s also based on a historical figure but is played as a white-suited, Panama-hatted movie villain as only Christoph Waltz can.
First Tarzan, Jane, and Williams journey inland to the local Bantu village where Jane grew up (her father was an anthropologist) and where the movie does its level best to give us a few three-dimensional African characters like Jane’s old chum Wasimbu (Sidney Ralitsoele). Lord Greystoke reconnects with computer-generated lions, elephants, and apes — any actual animals being too preoccupied with getting driven to extinction — and gradually drops his civilized veneer, until he’s swinging in pursuit of the kidnapped Jane and Wasimbu on vines that never, ever run out of play.
The most intriguing aspect of “The Legend of Tarzan” is Skarsgård, who plays the character not as a chest-beating macho man but a lithe, graceful keeper of secrets only he understands. We hear the famous Tarzan yell, but it’s noteworthy that we don’t actually see the character giving it. This is a quiet noble savage, forever poised on the balls of his feet.
If only the rest of the movie were worthy of his conception, but “Legend” keeps sensitively insisting on the hero’s superiority in all things. It piles on the B-movie plotting until Tarzan is face to face with a tribal nemesis (Djimon Hounsou of “Amistad”) for a formulaic action showdown before racing off to save Jane and, really, the entire country from the Belgians. The film ends with a cheerful, ahistorical sense of triumph — Yippee! We stopped the Rape of the Congo! — with which 10 million dead Congolese would probably beg to differ.
It all might wash in a Johnny Weissmuller “Tarzan” movie from the 1940s. It no longer suffices today. Filmmakers, it’s time to pack up Greystoke Manor. Tarzan is dead.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN
Directed by David Yates. Written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, based on the “Tarzan” stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Reading and Natick. 109 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of action and violence, some sensuality, brief rude dialogue).