Lost count of how many times you’ve seen the Tarzan story told on the big screen? Yeah, well me too. So it was going to take something pretty special here to make me feel any warmer and fuzzier than I did when Disney last had an (animated) stab at it.
And like The Jungle Book that most notably came before it in live-action form, it would be easy just to wave this off with a grunt, safe in the knowledge that avoiding it would likely mean your memories of vine swinging tomfoolery would remain untainted.
But no, with an intro that pays homage to The Lion King, we get a brief marker about Leopold of Belgium and his attempts to plunder The Congo in the late nineteenth century. Tenuous though it may be, Africa is calling the now grown up and repatriated Tarzan home once more and we get the impression that it isn’t for a hearty welcome.
Now personally, I don’t really get the Tarzan fascination. Okay, so the chap grows up in the wild, inexplicably not eaten by the many things that would like nothing more than a Tarzan sandwich, who avoids natural disaster, disease, potential starvation and even a lack of a decent pair of sneakers. A curio perhaps, but does that explain the enduring appeal? Am I being horribly shallow to suggest that, when all said and done, the girls (and some of the boys too) do like a bit of a wild man?
So not falling into this demographic, it’s safe to say that my attention, equally shallow I’ll admit, came in the form of Margot Robbie as Jane Clayton. I didn’t need the bells and whistles, I didn’t need special effects, or gorillas playing musical instruments with suspiciously decent timing and innovative approaches to design aesthetics. I just needed Margot Robbie on the screen for as much of the running time as possible. She didn’t even have to be in a bubble bath. I’m not greedy.
Initially reluctant to accept King Leopold’s invitation of a visit to his old stomping ground, Lord Greystoke soon acquiesces despite very sane and credible reasons not to; “it’s too hot” being a particular highlight. This is probably a good job, or this would have been an extremely short movie.
So with Jane (Robbie) and Dr Williams (Jackson) in tow, Tarzan (who now prefers to go by his entirely less feral name of ‘John’) heads back to Africa, assuming everything he is told is exactly what it seems. But we all already know differently. Then it is just a matter of time before the reveal, well, reveals itself to Tarzan too.
Naturally, as you would expect, there are some stunning vistas to soak up and the film does indeed look glorious quite often (even when Robbie isn’t featuring) with cgi good enough to adorn the recent Planet of the Apes franchise under the always firm direction of David Yates, who surprises as rarely as he disappoints us here.
We are afforded a rudimentary history lesson regards Tarzan’s origins (were it needed) and probably a touch too much exposition and the first thirty minutes feel laborious because of it, with regular jumps back to Tarzan’s childhood, narrated sometimes by Jane and sometimes in quiet moments of contemplation. Whether this is really required is up for debate, save for the very youngest viewers, that still may not have a clue about the story.
As with this years’ Jungle Book, a live-action re-telling of Tarzan feels more grounded, more mature and often devoid of warmth, not to mention carefree fun. I’m sure fun was never the intention, of course, but if not, then what? The biggest question remains as to why this exists at all? Suggestions that this is original due to the content of Tarzan’s later years may be well founded, but wasn’t the point of interest in the first place the childhood, raised by animals in a hostile environment? Do we really need a story about John Clayton’s sphere of influence when it comes to corporate negotiations and global trade agreements?
So in short, on the plus side it looks damned pretty and it has Margot Robbie in it. It also respectfully borrows liberally from the likes of Jurassic Park and The Lion King. Unfortunately, it is overlong and often tedious viewing and despite some decent performances, particularly from the always reliable Christoph Waltz, this is mostly a chore, literally interspersed with the odd shiny diamond.