Anyone following Johnny Weissmuller’s run of early Tarzan movies would no doubt notice that apart the furious jungle action that seems to occur every thirteen minutes whether the story requires it or not, the main thread that courses through the first couple of movies like the Zambezi is the continuing domestication of it’s mighty title character.
Starting off as a lion wrasslin’ bachelor, the introduction of Jane into his life led to instances where the lord of the apes has had to learn to be wary of the lures of the civilised world while simultaneously providing his lady love with a sizable treehouse that contains a laughable amount of creature comforts that thankfully stops short of featuring a python powered tumble dryer or a pelican bidet. The natural conclusion to this progression was the entrance of the character Boy, an adopted son who would finally complete the family unit while giving Tarzan yet another person to run around and save every twenty minutes so does the introduction of this painfully potential Scrappy Doo finally mark the down swing of one of cinema’s most legendary heroes?
A plane crash leaves an orphaned, gurgling baby boy at the mercy of the jungle if not for the intervention of some unsurprisingly heavy handed apes who literally hurls the child into the arms of a bemused Tarzan. After presenting the dribbling tot to Jane and after determining that the child’s parents have been sufficiently murdered by whatever lethal thing in the jungle got to them first (probably the ground considering it was a plane crash), the two adopt the child and lazily name him Boy – although he got off lightly when you realise that Tarzan’s first choice was to call the child Elephant.
Five years later and Boy has gotten revenge on the fact that his parents are as good at naming children as a YouTube influencer and dedicates his very existence to making his adoptive father crap his loin cloth in panic by cheekily choosing to swing from vines with his feet every chance he gets.
However, trouble rears it’s head when the usual troupe of upper-class white folk come scrabbling through the jungle looking for any survivors from the plane crash years prior (bit late for a rescue, wouldn’t you say?). Of course they have shifty ulterior motives and are only here to guarantee that with the confirmation that all aboard were killed that they can get their hands on a meaty inheritance – something that’s put in jeopardy by the existence of Boy.
Deciding that if they were to adopt the boy themselves, the relatives figure that the money would be as good as theirs and they get to work on convincing Jane to trick Tarzan and let them give Boy a life that doesn’t have him almost getting torn limb from limb by a jungle cat at least twice a day.
Of course their intentions aren’t quite so noble as they make out and shit goes sour with the entrance of a sadistic tribe of cannibals who are famous for mutilating their prisoners, so it’s once again down to Tarzan to make things right, but can he ever forgive Jane for trying to give away his poorly named son?
The sudden appearance of a child character to shake up the status quo of a movie series is surely one of the Four Horsemen Of Franchise Fatigue alongside DTV sequels being filmed back to back and an animated spin off, but surprisingly the addition of Boy doesn’t throw things off too much despite the fact that when we first see him at eight years old the throwing stones at hippos, antagonising crocodiles and generally being an obnoxious little shit while constantly screaming for his dad to bail him out of a daily stream of nightmarish situations. When he’s not being traumatized by being strung up hopelessly in a giant spider’s web, however, it soon becomes apparent that he’s here to take the place of Jane’s as the lightning rod to every greedy white person who comes to Africa looking for the keys to a random, large some of money – but it’s not only his onscreen mother who has lost some plot privileges to the tree swing tyke as on closer inspection it becomes clear that Boy’s origin is actually Tarzan’s original origin and even hails from the Greystoke family too. Actually while we’re on the subject, he also steals Cheeta’s schtick of being chased by things to pad out the story, so I guess the little thief scored a hat trick of grand theft plotline…
Such origin smudging would make the internet’s head explode today but this cut and paste backstory actual serves to make the child integral to the plot and therefore not quite as punchable as you would first expect.
However, despite shifting the target of a nefarious plot from Jane to her blonde, curly haired stand-in, the overarching story of Tarzan Finds A Son has now gotten extremely over familiar and is virtually a carbon copy of the three films that preceded it – it even ends with yet another “evil” tribe slaughtering innocent natives while the white villains mostly get off with a slapped wrist before Tarzan levels the place with his patented elephant stampede which now comes complete with the genuinely ghoulish sight of Boy chasing down some terrified tribal children on the back of a baby pachyderm.
While it’s easy to point fingers at the script, a good explanation for this may be some tinkering behind the scenes that involved the producers letting the rights lapse and hence why there’s a three year gap between this and Tarzan Escapes instead of the usual two – an independent producer actually made a whole other Tarzan movie without Weismuller which flopped harder than an asphyxiating trout. Also, this movie was due to be the great Maureen O’Sullivan’s final swing as Jane who was going to actually to die at the end of the film and whose character does, in fact, take a rather meaty spear to the back during the final reel, but luckily test audiences where adamant that she live so Jane manages to simply shrug off the mortal wound chiefly because her boo forgives her. Even weirder is the reasoning behind Boy’s inclusion in the first place as it was cooked up in the first place to appease morality groups due to the fact that Tarzan and Jane wasn’t married and so shoving a found child into the mix (remember, it’s not called Tarzan Adopts A Son!) would presumably eradicate the need for them to be tirelessly humping like bunnies while a section of the audience is horrified that no one’s thinking of the children.
The actors still make it work with numerous memorable moments like Tarzan grumpily conceding that maybe a newborn baby should be eating before him and Jane’s tearful goodbye to Boy when she’s convinced that her jungle-girl summer may finally be coming to a violent end and the film still retains a lot of the basic magic, but Weismuller and O’Sullivan’s fourth outing starts to wear all the well trodden story tropes down to the bone and while the inclusion of a child character isn’t quite the irritation explosion I was fearing – Tarzan may have found a son, but he’s in danger of losing everything else…