It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Sometimes you have to wonder how certain movies get made. I have no special knowledge of the production of “The Legend of Tarzan.” But I have to imagine that the movie spent such a long time in the development process that no one involved found a moment to look outside the Hollywood bubble and surmise that maybe right now in America isn’t the most opportune time to reboot a pop culture myth involving a quasi-superhero white guy who has dominion over the animals and certain peoples of Africa.
The upper-case “r” in a circle that appears below the name “Tarzan” in the opening credits of this new movie, directed by “Harry Potter” stalwart David Yates from a script by Craig Brewer (of “Hustle and Flow” and “Black Snake Moan” renown, and no, I’m not kidding) and Adam Cozad (no idea), may have something to do with the movie’s raison d’etre—when one has a trademark, one must exploit it. But the wisdom of propagating any kind of white savior narrative during the charged era of Black Lives Matter surely must have seemed dubious, no?
Actually, yes, because throughout its brisk hour-and-forty-five minute running time, “The Legend of Tarzan” does things to reassure those viewers that care that the movie is indeed aware of its “problematics.” The movie begins with some texts evoking the colonization of what was in the late 19th century called the Belgian Congo, and of a nefarious scheme involving mercenaries, slave labor, and pilfered diamonds, all engineered by an envoy named Leon Rom. This fellow is played by Christoph Waltz and he carries with him a rosary that sometimes doubles as a short-distance noose, which isn’t a heavy-handed piece of symbolism at all, no way. Anyway, he’s the bad guy, and he’s first seen entering the deepest, foggiest, most spear-ridden caverns of the African jungle to bargain with fierce chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who will give Rom all the diamonds he needs to finance his army … on delivery of his most hated enemy: Tarzan.
The movie finds Tarzan up in England, all civilized and respectable and Lord Greystoke-like, residing in his manor with wife Jane, something of a London celebrity and man of influence. The ruse of an invitation to check out Belgian’s “progress” in the Congo is proffered to Tarzan—this is part of Rom’s trap—and Tarzan, I mean Lord Greystoke, I mean John Clayton, is disinclined to accept. He’s moved, though, by the entreaties of an African-American diplomat/investigative agent, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who wants to tag along with, um, Tarzan, and get solid evidence of illegal slave trading. That’s travel companion one. Once the Big T gets back to the manor, we discover that he and Jane have a pretty 21st-century type relationship. She, played by Margot Robbie, insists that she’s coming along too. He protests “The last thing you need is more stress"—I told you about that 21st century biz—but she’s not having it. The gang of three hits the sea, and once on the Continent makes a meaningful detour to visit the tribe that Jane knew when her parents were missionaries. And there is much singing and celebration in a manner not unlike that scene in “Hatari!” where they make Elsa Martinelli the elephant queen or whatever she was. Almost sixty years and ain’t a damn thing changed in Hollywood.