Both Darwin and I agreed–the problem here was twofold. First, the story takes forever to get moving. This is supposed to be an action/adventure movie, but we spend the first third of it wandering around a bleak, blue-filtered London, dithering about whether or not we should go to Africa and deal with a growing problem in the Congo. I was nodding off.
Second, Tarzan is cast in the role of rescuer for =everyone.= He’s the white man who literally swoops in to rescue enslaved Africans in Congo. He’s rescues terrorized African villagers. And worst of all, he rescues Jane.
It’s not bad all by itself that Tarzan rescues Jane from her kidnappers. It’s bad that Jane exists in the film only to be rescued. She does nothing but sit in chains on a steamboat, waiting for Tarzan to come get her. At one point she does manage to slip away, but is promptly recaptured, and her escapade does not one thing to hurt the villain’s plot. Jane has no story of her own, no agency outside her relationship to Tarzan. And in the end, she has a baby. But of course.
The movie lacks suspense. Jane never shows any fear. (I suppose the director decided that, since he created her to be a damsel in distress, he could make up for it by having her snark in chains. This only makes her more damsel-y, though–in the movie Jane is confident because she knows Tarzan will save her, not because she knows she can save herself.) Tarzan himself is never in any real danger. During a major duel with an ape, the ape has no intention of killing him, and we know it. The bad guys don’t want Tarzan dead–they just want him captured. A tribal chieftain who =does= want Tarzan dead surrounds Tarzan with armed men who don’t attack because the chief wants to fight Tarzan one-on-one, and the normally laconic Tarzan talks his way out of the battle. Yawn. There are no stakes for Tarzan himself. The movie should have reversed itself, had Tarzan get kidnapped in the Congo and sent Jane off to rescue him. =That= would have made a cool movie!
There are other flaws. In a truly stupid attempt at character development, the villain uses a rosary “made of spider silk” as a weapon. (There’s probably supposed to be some kind of symbolism about the church snaring unwary victims and choking the life out of them, but there’s nothing in the story to back this up, so it falls flat.) Tarzan is the only person manly enough to break free of its choking influence (more symbolism). The device is supposed to be sinister, but it comes across as unintentionally funny–a teensy little beaded cord that somehow manages to intimidate and choke people into submission? I found myself laughing.
The movie also seems afraid to let Tarzan be Tarzan. He’s king of the jungle, but many of his interactions with animals show him getting beaten up by them. He has to use lions to create a wildebeest stampede, but the Tarzan in the books would have simply shouted to the wildebeests, and they would have rushed to his side. Rather than command crocodiles, he tricks them with a mating call. (Ew!) The director barely shows any of the legendary vine-swinging, either. We have, in fact, only two short sessions of it. A generation that has watched eight or nine movies with Spider-Man in them is expecting something rather more riveting.
But it was fun watching Alexander Skarsgaard starve himself into muscular perfection for my viewing pleasure.
–Steven Harper Piziks