The Legend of Tarzan
2016, PG-13, 109 min. Directed by David Yates. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 1, 2016
Every generation gets the iconic treatments it deserves, and that’s what had me worried about this new Hollywood take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ enduring fictional megastar, Tarzan. Would the canonical ape-man be marooned in a CGI jungle, and rendered as phony as the animals and vines from which he swung? As it turns out, The Legend of Tarzan isn’t half-bad, and the film deftly put most of my fears to rest by creating animals and jungles that serve and enhance the story rather than detracting from it.
Visual magic, by now, must be second nature for director David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter movies, and is currently finishing up work on J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Sure, there’s a lot of heavily foregrounded action and dialogue that’s set against hazy backgrounds, but when the apes, tigers, crocs, and hippopotami come storming across the screen or answer their friend Tarzan’s call, there’s little sense of them being fabricated creatures (or Andy Serkis dressed in an ape suit).
Where previous Hollywood Tarzan movies have seemed uncomfortable with the colonialist agendas and racial divides inherent in the stories, The Legend of Tarzan’s screenwriters Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and Adam Cozad embrace the tale’s heart of darkness. They ground this film in a story that stems from the notorious rape of the Congo’s natural resources and enslavement of its people by the minions of Belgium’s King Leopold II at the end of the 19th century. Christoph Waltz delivers what is by now another one of his stock-in-trade villains as Captain Leon Rom, the king’s envoy to the Congo. He’s the covert engineer of the plot to return Tarzan (Skarsgård) to the jungle as the barter price for precious diamonds from a tribal chief (Hounsou). These days, the former feral boy is enjoying his manhood back in England as Lord Greystoke, a member of the House of Lords and husband to his longtime love, Jane (Robbie). When he returns to the Congo, he is accompanied by George Washington Williams (Jackson), an American soldier and adventurer who wants to document Belgium’s rumored enslavement of the native population. (A most curious character, Williams was a real person who actually did visit the Congo on a fact-finding mission and whose scathing letter to King Leopold II is heard at the close of the movie – although we’re certain he was not accompanied by the fictional Tarzan during his journey.)
Constant flashbacks to Tarzan’s childhood, and cross-cuts between the actions of Capt. Rom (who has taken Jane hostage) and Tarzan and Williams in chase, make the narrative more chock-a-block than necessary. But the film’s full-throated embrace of the story’s colonialist underpinnings, Skarsgård’s finely sculpted abs, Robbie’s self-actualized womanhood, Waltz’s gold-standard villainy, and the historical introduction of George Washington Williams make The Legend of Tarzan if not king of the jungle then at least a member in good standing of the royal court.