Forget memories of Johnny Weissmuller puffing out his chest, sucking in his gut and announcing himself as “Me, Tarzan” to a bemused Jane, having just swung in on a vine to pluck her from danger. There is a bit of that in The Legend of Tarzan – arriving over half a century after the jungle hero’s Hollywood heyday – but this movie is aimed at a more enlightened audience who might take offence at the sexist, racist undertones threaded through the original stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The irony is that modern viewers are also sophisticated enough to see the wood for the trees and the political correctness thuds so hard you may as well call “Timber!”
When we meet Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård of TV’s True Blood), he’s already in the habit of wearing a suit, drinking tea with pinkie finger extended and sombrely musing on the plight of the Congolese whose country, in 1884, is being carved up between Great Britain and Belgium. He sits in the House of Lords and is known to his friends as John but to the wider public he is Lord Greystoke, whose upbringing in the African jungle is the stuff of legend. Jane (Margot Robbie) is his wife and certainly no shrinking violet, making her opinions heard when hubbie is asked to return to the Congo on a diplomatic mission.
Here, British colonialism appears to be a friendly, fair-minded sort of affair – it’s our partners in Brussels who are taking advantage. But even those who voted Brexit might suspect this picture is a little skewed. The race politics is further muddied by Samuel L Jackson as a real-life veteran of the American Civil War, George Washington Williams, who takes Greystoke aside and suggests the Belgians are bolstering their economy with slavery.
When Tarzan finally returns to his old stomping ground, Jackson’s role then switches to cringe-worthy comedy sidekick while Skarsgård does a very slow striptease – he only gets his shirt off in the final third.
One of the benefits of a monosyllabic Tarzan is that, to put it simply, you get to the action quicker. When the so-called “wild man” finally shows up in this movie, he’s then bogged down by a struggle to reconcile vine-swinging thrills with squirm-inducing subtext (the white man bringing order to the colony). Skarsgård is certainly an imposing physical presence squaring up to silverback gorillas and director David Yates (the darker Harry Potter movies) gives him psychological demons to grapple with, too. But the guilt is token, conveyed in gentle moping between fly-by-vine, butt-kicking frolics that are too brief and badly edited. And worse, with the CG critters you can spot the seams, despite clouds of dust and mist.
Along with the wildlife, Tarzan has other enemies to contend with; among them, Djimon Hounsou, reduced to playing the “noble savage” again – almost 20 years after Amistad and Gladiator – as tribal leader Chief Mbonga who has been nursing a grudge since childhood. Flashbacks fill in the gaps in Tarzan’s backstory and also reveal how Jane captured his heart before inevitably getting into trouble again. (She insists she is no “damsel” and head-butts one of her captors in a laughable bid to prove the point.) Christoph Waltz is the Belgian envoy who strikes a deal with Mbonga to deliver Tarzan in return for diamonds, doing yet another variation on his camp villain from Inglourious Basterds.
By the time Tarzan musters sufficient enthusiasm to do his trademark yodel, it’s not enough to rouse excitement, only disturb your slumber. The script is just too uncertain, treading softly-softly to make the character seem less of a relic, or hitting false comic notes between brooding close-ups. Ultimately, our hero never finds his feet – or should that be his swing? The makers of George of the Jungle had it right – in this day and age, Tarzan only makes sense as a clown in a loincloth.