Title: The Legend of Tarzan
Director: David Yates
Length: 110 minutes
Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
(A wild movie review appears!)
They’re singing the legend of Tarzan. He was thought to be an evil spirit, a ghost in the trees…
Tarzan has been one of my favorite stories since I saw the Disney film in theatres when I was eight years old. I even had a big Kala stuffed animal. My father loves the original Edgar Rice Burroughs books (the first one of which I’ve also read, though it was a long time ago) and turned me on to the 1984 film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which is probably the definitive screen version of Tarzan. So when I heard about a new Tarzan movie, I knew we were going to have to go together.
I’m going to preface my review by saying that The Legend of Tarzan was definitely made with people familiar with the Tarzan story in mind. If you just know the bare bones (i.e., baby raised by monkeys in the jungle, then falls in love with pretty girl) or are going by the Disney movie, you might feel a little lost. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t an overly complex film. But there are a lot of great nods to the Burroughs books and even to the Greystoke film sprinkled throughout.
This has very low critical scores, something like a 45 on Metacritic, and it doesn’t deserve them. I don’t know what all those people were expecting. Tarzan has always been pulp fiction, albeit pulp with a heart, and this showing is no different. The animals and much of the jungle are CGI, of course–but it all looks pretty good, and besides, The Jungle Book was almost 100% CGI, and everyone raved over it! And no, Legend‘s not very realistic as a whole. At about the 75% mark the filmmakers decided to go ahead and go over-the-top, which I thought was great. If you’re going to do a thing at all, it’s a good idea to just commit to it.
Alexander Skarsgard was an excellent
and really beautiful, guys John Clayton/Tarzan. He was cut from precisely the same mold as Christopher Lambert thirty years ago: physically imposing, stoic, and quietly intense. His was a role that required minimal obvious acting, yet a great deal of subtlety at the same time. A few of the other reviews I read dismissively called his Tarzan “Byronic” and brooding, but they’ve clearly never seen Greystoke or, for that matter, read the original Tarzan of the Apes. I’m sure Skarsgard has done both. A very solid performance.
Margot Robbie as Jane Clayton (nee Porter), Tarzan’s wife, took a long time to grow on me. At first I thought she was doing a really dreadful English accent until it’s revealed that she’s American, raised in Africa, and only recently transplanted to England. There was still something just slightly…off about her acting, but she certainly played a feistier, more self-sufficient Jane than I’ve ever seen before, and her deep love for both Africa and her husband were obvious. Hers was the sort of Jane I could picture Tarzan really falling for and being devoted to, and thanks to the screenwriters she does get one heroic moment, though I doubt it will be enough to stop people from whining about her being a damsel in distress. She and Skarsgard had some real chemistry, too, which also helped things along.
Samuel L. Jackson plays…himself, basically, but he had a good time doing it. His character, Dr. George Washington Williams, was a real person who really did expose the horrors inflicted by King Leopold’s government on the people of the Congo. At first, his motivations felt a bit forced–he wanted to discover if the Belgians were selling Congolese people into slavery–but the performance improved as the movie progressed. Though he was mostly comic relief, Jackson’s heart appeared to be in it, and he had a truly superb moment late in the movie in which he expressed his remorse for one working as an Indian hunter in the American west.
And Christoph Waltz plays Leon Rom, the ambitious head of the Belgian government in the Congo who seems to lack a conscience. Though Rom was also modeled after a historical counterpart, he came off as the same old villainous character I’ve seen Waltz play in Spectre and elsewhere. Waltz’s performance wasn’t lacking by any means; it just wasn’t spectacular, either.
After several years attempting to find his place in English society, John Clayton (Tarzan) is invited to the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium to see the schools, churches, and railroads his government has constructed there. He declines, but is finally swayed by Dr. Williams, an American desperate to find out whether Leopold is really engaging in slavery as he suspects. His vivacious wife Jane insists on accompanying him even when he forbids it, telling him that she wants “to go home.” Naturally, for the sake of the movie, all three of them soon end up in Africa–but none of them know that the entire trip has been arranged by Leon Rom, the most powerful Belgian in the Congo, for his own nefarious purposes.
Eschewing any more spoilers, I’ll repeat what I wrote before: this is pulp fiction, just like the Tarzan books were, but it’s got some serious heart. The story dragged in places, I’ll admit. At times, the twists and turns felt a little too convenient–too scripted. But altogether, I was entertained. The movie featured…
- Tarzan swinging around in the jungle;
- Tarzan interacting with his ape family;
- Tarzan and his African friends kicking ass and taking names;
- and last but not least, some heart-wrenching flashbacks to Tarzan’s (and Jane’s) past.
It had, in short, everything I wanted–and expected!–from a Tarzan movie.
I’ve also never seen a movie set during the Belgian occupation of the Congo, so I found it very neat that this one incorporated that often-overlooked part of history. While Legend never showed the horrors inflicted by the Belgian government in great detail, it didn’t necessarily underplay them, either. I appreciated that they often took a subtle approach instead, such as a scene of a boatload of elephant tusks that’s juxtaposed with a later scene of a group of the gentle giants meandering through the jungle. It’s okay to assume the audience is intelligent enough to connect the dots instead of spelling everything out for them!
The final fifteen or twenty minutes are definitely over-the-top, as I said earlier, but they’re also a lot of fun, so who really cares? Not to beat a dead horse, but this is Tarzan, not Shakespeare. At the same time, the silliness of the action sequences never exceeded or eclipsed the drama of the human tragedy which Tarzan and Dr. Williams (and to a somewhat lesser degree, Jane) spent the movie fighting against.
The Other Stuff
The script was pretty well-written, though a few scenes suffer from clunky dialogue. Occasionally all the characters–again, especially Jane–and the attitudes they hold come off as somewhat anachronistic. I found those things easy to overlook. The cinematography was just breathtaking. I have no doubt, because it’s 2016 and they can, that a good deal of the jungle and all of the animals were CGI creations. But I’m equally sure that at least a bit of the shooting occurred on-location, and the result is a lush feast for the eyes. I also thought the score was quite good–not iconic by any means, but very serviceable. A solid score can really make a movie that would otherwise be middling. There were seveal understated references to Tarzan’s past (he still holds his hands in a very ape-like way, for instance) and to the original books (his grandfather gets a mention, as does the fact that Tarzan’s apes are called mangani–a fictional species, of course–not gorillas!) that I found both thoughtful and delightful.
In short, if you love Tarzan, you’ll probably love this rendition as well. The Legend of Tarzan is a rousing, beautiful, heartfelt action-adventure flick that’s greater than the sum of its parts.