“The Legend of Tarzan”

            Tarzan is one of the stories that captured my imagination as a child.  I wanted to believe that a human being could have a special relationship with the wild animals---not necessarily to dominate them, but to communicate and cooperate.  Something about the ideal harmony of humans with nature.  At the time, I didn’t really think of Tarzan as a superhero---someone endowed with special powers the rest of us don’t have---but in reality, his command over the jungle animals does, in fact, put him in the superhero category.  And in this latest version on the big screen, Alexander Skarsgard certainly looks the part.  He's heavily chiseled from the weight room, which is ironic, considering he was supposed to grow up in the wilds.  But then, the most famous Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, was an Olympic swimmer, so  even without CGI, there’s still a precedence of the superhuman.  And there’s also precedence of a Jane who is a looker, but little else.  Margo Robbie is essentially wasted in this role, because she’s mostly eye candy; a helpless damsel in distress, waiting for her Tarzan to rescue her—while she whines, wines and dines on a steamboat with the bad guy?

            Christoph Waltz is an excellent villain----in that slimy-sophisticated mode that he plays so well.  In this story, set in The Congo at the turn of the 20th century. Leon Rom was actually an historical figure---an agent of King Leopold II of Belgium, who was determined to mine the minerals in the area by exploiting the natives.  Yes, the reports of genocide are truly sobering.  So it’s tempting to try to re-write history a bit, introducing a hero who could actually thwart the slave trading and the economic exploitation.

            What’s not historically accurate is to insert an American diplomat commissioned by President Benjamin Harrison to investigate the matter, but it is a good vehicle to cast the venerable and revered Samuel L. Jackson in this movie. It’s not very realistic that he could actually keep up with Tarzan in the jungle, even if Tarzan, as the Earl of Greystoke, had in fact, returned to England for a while to run his baronial estate.

            Tarzan’s story is told in a series of flashbacks; how he was somehow adopted by the very gorillas who killed his parents.  But as a boy growing up in the jungle, Tarzan not only was attuned to the other animals, he found he could communicate with them.  So when Tarzan returns, we find him greeting his old friends the lions, and the elephants.  And at the end, he can command whole thundering herds to do his bidding.  But, he still must go back and do some mano-a-mano with his “brother ape” to establish alpha dominance, and at least we aren’t too unrealistic about how that combat would resolve.

            The CGI usage is spectacular, and the story, though stretching credulity in places, still has a clear and despicable enemy, and a strong and resilient hero.  Tarzan yell, anyone?


Questions for Discussion:

1)                   How good are your own animal communication skills?

2)                  What social injustice of a previous generations would you go back and help if you could?

3)                  What present-day social injustice would you attempt to help rectify if you could?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association