What do we have to do to get a good live-action Tarzan movie? The Disney animated version was fine entertainment as far as it went, but why can't anybody make a pulp adventure film worth watching? Tarzan is one of the most enduring fictional creations ever -- why has he been so ill served of late?
The most recent attempt to cast a flesh and blood person as Tarzan is in Tarzan and the Lost City, with Casper Van Dien donning the loin cloth. There can be no doubt that Van Dien has the physique to pull off the role, but he doesn't project any charisma. He also doesn't seem to be up to the physical feats that should define Tarzan, like the leaping from tree to tree or the wrestling wild animals. Tarzan never does anything particularly superhuman at any time in the film, unless looking hunky counts. Tarzan should be more proactive than a soap opera star.
Did Tarzan have a bachelor party? If you believe this movie, he did. On the eve of his marriage to Jane Porter (Jane March), Tarzan has a vision of trouble back in Africa. At this point in his life, Tarzan is living in England as the Lord of Greystoke, and going by his given name of John Clayton. Tarzan and the Lost City is a melting pot of Tarzan continuity. In the books Tarzan's real name is John Clayton, but he doesn't live in England until after he's married Jane. And in the books (and the Johnny Weissmuller movies) Jane is an American, yet it seems like every modern version of Tarzan has decided that Jane should be English.*Tarzan and the Lost City is no exception.
"And then it says we must pass three tests:
The Breath of God, the Name of God,
and the Nasal Discharge of God."
Tarzan postpones the wedding and hoofs it to the African interior. There he learns from Mugambe* (Winston Ntshona), a witch doctor, that an Indiana Jones type named Nigel Ravens (Steven Waddington) has been raping and pillaging central Africa in order to find Opar, a lost city. Ravens believes that Opar may hold the key to the origin of civilization. Or the key to a hair replacement technique that works. Whichever. Recently Ravens paid a visit to the tribe that Mugambe hangs out with (he doesn't seem to be a member) and went so far as to desecrate the graves of the dead in order find an amulet that is someway connected to Opar. The current leader of the tribe, Kaya (Rapulana Seiphemo), has vowed vengeance.
Tarzan's first order of business is to release all of the animals Ravens has captured and dump most of Ravens' pillaged treasures into the river. The stated reason for doing this is to take away Ravens' funding so he can't mount the expedition to Opar. But Ravens sets off into the interior anyway. Tarzan sets out after him, with Jane in tow. Oh wait, did we forget to mention that Jane followed Tarzan to Africa without his knowledge? Of course she did. How else could the movie come up with somebody to be captured and held hostage by the bad guys?
"Moving into the Swiss Family Robinson
Tree House was the best decision
I ever made."
Ravens sallies forth with his expedition, while Tarzan and Jane enjoy a romantic interlude at the tree house where Tarzan was born. After a while, Tarzan and Jane set off in pursuit of Ravens. Tarzan hassles the expedition, but is KO'd by an albino cobra. Jane is taken hostage by Ravens, while Tarzan slowly approaches death from the poisonous bite. Fortunately, Tarzan is saved by Mugambe, who appears in the form of a swarm of bees.
The movie actually shows a little bit of promise once Ravens reaches the caves that will lead to Opar. There is a pretty cool clash between Ravens and Kaya's tribe. But once we get to Opar, that "lost city" turns out to be one building, and Tarzan doesn't have to do much to defeat Ravens. Rather, it's Mugambe's magical powers that do most of the hard work here. Ravens is killed by some sort of unexplained magical booby trap, apparently because he accidentally drops the amulet he stole at the beginning of the film.
This is what's wrong with Tarzan and the Lost City. Tarzan is supposed to be a hero, someone who performs incredible feats of daring-do. But in this film, Mugambe's magic does most of the work, and Tarzan never displays any superhuman strength, courage, or skill. He can't even get the upper hand during his only physical altercation with Ravens.
We believe this movie was made with good intentions, and the casting of Casper Van Dien probably seemed like a good idea. But a script that doesn't allow Tarzan an opportunity to do anything exciting is the one enemy he can't wrestle into submission.
* This worked in our favor during the recent Disney version, when it allowed Minnie Driver to give Jane that wonderful voice. Yum! Go back!
* Mugambi was a character in ERB's books. We guess that changing the name to have an "e" at the end makes it sound more African. Besides the name, Mugambe does not resemble any character Burroughs ever created. Go back!