The Legend of Tarzan

Posted by Joel Copling on July 1, 2016

"The Legend of Tarzan" presents an unexpected conundrum, but before we get there, I feel that we must face the possibility that Tarzan, he of the primitive upbringing among the homo sapien's evolutionary cousins, is not a very interesting character. Screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs's many stories about the character for a new generation, seem to grasp this fact, limiting the origin story to a series of flashbacks. The main thrust of Tarzan's own story here follows the character after the point at which he has been civilized. The jungle beckons him back into its depths, and what waits for him is the stuff of a genuinely engrossing melodrama about the past catching up with the future. No one, not even Tarzan, can ever really leave home; the shift occurs when he's forced to go back.

That's where the conundrum comes in, because in spite all of this, as played by Alexander Skarsgard, the character still isn't very interesting, and neither, for that matter, is Jane (Margot Robbie), the American intruder into his midst who tamed and married him. Here, there is some lip service paid to her newer status as a "strong female character" in a blockbuster market that dumbs down the "gentler" sex, but by the climax, she's just another damsel in still more distress. That's the problem that the screenwriters are never able to reconcile: The plot in which these two find themselves with regard to Tarzan's story is so involving that it's only more of a disappointment that the film retains their simplistic, archetypal nature. Tarzan was raised by apes deep within the African Congo and during a complicated racial and political history for the region, which is touched upon in microcosm in the form of a tense conflict with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou).

Hounsou's presence (and fierce, excellent performance) is mirrored elsewhere by a pair of supporting players who leave the two leading actors in the dust, consistently and without fail. Samuel L. Jackson is clearly having a ball as George Washington Williams, an American Civil War veteran who has come to Africa to investigate claims of the enslavement of the locals at the hands of the Belgian royal family. Clearly, there's some depth to this character, and Jackson's strengths as an actor who plays characters investigating things is put to good use--that is, as far as the screenplay will let him, which isn't very far until he becomes comic relief and a source of exposition. The standout of the cast is Christoph Waltz, that Austrian-German actor who can convey pleasantness and threat in the same expression, as Leon Rom, the arbiter of the mass slavery pocket who wants to bring Tarzan to Chief Mbonga for the price of expensive diamonds.

The supporting cast, then, is saddled with the less interesting subplot, which simplifies further as the film rushes through a lot of establishment of plot points to get to a climactic confrontation on a boat. It's not all that enticing or exciting, and director David Yates and cinematographer Henry Braham douse a lot of potential visual joy from the proceedings by giving all of it a bluish-gray tint. The exceptions are the scenes in which Tarzan (who does, obviously, go by his given name of Lord John Clayton, but who's counting?) connects to his heritage. After all, this is a shell of a man still learning to be one, and he might have had human parents who birthed him, but his heritage is among the animals. When "The Legend of Tarzan" understands this, the film is quite good. Instead, it shoves him into a standard-issue plot that makes him out to be a superhero with cool animal-control powers. It's a more than a bit underwhelming.

Film Information

Alexander Skarsgard (John Clayton/Tarzan), Margot Robbie (Jane Clayton), Samuel L. Jackson (George Washington Williams), Christoph Waltz (Leon Rom), Djimon Hounsou (Chief Mbonga), Sidney Ralitsoele (Wasimbu), Ben Chaplin (Captain Moulle), Jim Broadbent (Prime Minister).

Directed by David Yates and written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, based on the "Tarzan" stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Rated PG-13 (action/violence, sensuality, brief rude dialogue).

109 minutes.

Released on July 1, 2016.