“You saved my life. That was superhero stuff.” That’s Jane (Rebecca Shoichet) to Tarzan in the new Netflix series Tarzan and Jane. Or, to give it its full title, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Jane. But while the author of the original adventures is present in the name of this animation, it couldn’t be further from the books or films of old.
The word “superhero” is a clue as to where the programme is headed, as we’re introduced to a young baby who survives a plane crash in the jungle. Rescued by ape Kala (Kathleen Barr), he’s taken to the local village, where Dr. Porter (Paul Dobson) is getting on very well with Chief Wazari (Omari Newton). Together, they hope to combine the village’s knack for natural medicine with modern chemistry to change the world of science. And so when Kala turns up at the edge of the woods with a babe in arms, he’s promptly seen to by the Shaman – and given a dose of Porter’s medicine mid-ritual. A splash of cheetah here. A dab of lion there. The result? A super-human with speed, strength, agility and a handy set of claws. The Flash meets Wolverine? Welcome to Tarzan for the comic book age.
It’s a strange departure from the source text, but given the problems Burroughs’ work raises in the more enlightened modern day, you can understand why former Marvel Studios CEO and Iron Man producer Avi Arad would see the potential for a heroic take on the King of Jungle. Pink glows and colour-changing eyes are unnecessary signposts for when Tarzan’s putting on his super-powered hat, but if you can make the swing of faith from the series’ unusual tree, a lot of this show’s changes to Tarzan lore are for the better.
Gone are the stereotypical broken sentences – this new Tarzan (Giles Panton) is friends with Muviro Waziri (reimagined, naturally, as a teenager), who’s about to attend London University, which means that he’s well-versed in English conversation. And, best of all, the cliched female Jane is given a contemporary, ass-kicking makeover: Jane Porter (Rebecca Shoichet), the daughter of the doctor who transformed Tarzan, also goes to school in London and, thanks to a movie star mother (Marci T. House), is a savvy young woman in touch with the world. The stage is set, then, for Tarzan to be whizzed over to the UK capital, where he is instructed by his grandfather, the Earl of Greystoke (Dobson on double vocal duties), to go to school.
The unlikely decision by Tarzan to stay in an unknown home and try fitting in is made easier by the presence of Jane. Indeed, as the title suggests, they end up becoming something of a double-act. That doesn’t mean romance, necessarily, but it does mean a stint of crime-fighting, as they find themselves caught up in animal trafficking, corporate sabotage involving pesticides and, of course, that age-old classic of bulldozers threatening to destroy trees. You may have noticed a pattern here, and there’s something to be said for Tarzan and Jane’s green sensibilities; not since SuperTed has there been a kids’ show that wears its environmental philosophy so proudly on its sleeve. The bad guys, therefore, are the usual mix of cynical, exploitative, rich people – a familiar trope that’s countered by the surprisingly warm portrayal of Tarzan’s own wealthy progenitor, who sends aid packages to other countries.
The cast deliver the dialogue with aplomb, which helps the occasionally on-the-nose script go down. (“When the Shaman’s medicine mixed with your dad’s medicine, it didn’t just save me. It changed me,” Tarzan says at one point, with no explanation as to how he understands what happened, given that he was a baby at the time and the incident was kept a strict secret.) Giles Panton’s accent as Tarzan seems, at first, a bit confused, but its odd blend of accents is arguably accurate for a boy whose formative years are divided between two different societies, not to mention a jungle. Certainly, he’s not lacking in charisma, able to talk to animals with a believable affection. (“Like her, huh? Yeah, she’s alright,” he says to a dog, in a direct quote from Ace Ventura.)
The same is true of Shoichet’s Jane. She’s bad-ass, but also klutzy in her own way, often distracted by food to comic effect. They even use that idea of Tarzan’s native speak as a sort-of baby talk that almost becomes an in-joke – a nice touch.
They need that chemistry, though, to cover up some more bizarre script choices, such as a set piece that revolves around Jane’s highly unlikely ability to fly between buildings, because she’s been around Hollywood stunt doubles before. Even the coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water stuff, which comes straight from the Marvel playbook, doesn’t always ring true – as Tarzan finds it hard not to show off (not to mention his apparent fame through viral videos online), you wonder why he hasn’t been exposed, confronted or hounded about his abilities. If nothing else, the couple’s apparently consistent absence from the classroom would almost certainly not go unnoticed.
But this isn’t quite a world of realism; this is a world of weird science and extraordinary abilities. A universe where guns contain tranquiliser darts rather than bullets, so the parents don’t have to worry about inappropriate violence; think Spider-Man meets Scooby-Doo, with a hint of Captain Planet. Taken on that level, and taking into account its sprinkling of eco-awareness, Netflix’s kids’ adventure is a likeable eight-episode introduction to a reboot of an enduring, often outdated character. With a visual style that harks back to simpler line drawings (nobody can talk without baring their teeth), a premise with potential for more than just monkeying around and a pair of lead characters who are placed on firmly equal footing, Tarzan and Jane is a new origins story more than an adaptation. He may not be the King of the Jungle of your childhood, but Tarzan feels more relevant than ever. And that’s no bad thing.
Tarzan and Jane is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.