The Legend of Tarzan gives us everything we have come to expect from a Tarzan movie, not just in terms of what the title character does – swinging on vines barefoot and with no shirt on, communicating with jungle animals (apes especially), letting out his trademark yell – but also in terms of being true to the spirit of the jungle adventure movie, in which characters have exciting encounters in exotic locations. This is good enough as it is. But it also gives us a little more than we expect; it works in some actual history, and not in a way that’s forced or overbearing. This would be King Leopold II of Belgium’s claiming and subsequent exploitation of the African Congo nation, in which he made a fortune on ivory and slave labor and then wasted it on the construction of railroads.
Keeping this in mind, a character based on an actual historical figure has been added. This would be George Washington Williams, an African American historian who served in the Civil War and, upon traveling to the Congo Free State in 1890, created a public outcry by exposing the devastating effects of Leopold II’s reign, not the least of which were the suffering and deaths of literally millions of natives. He’s played by Samuel L. Jackson as a cross between an abolitionist and a gunslinger, which you’d think would be fatal to the material but is actually quite appropriate. Having said that, Jackson is supplied with a few lines of dialogue that cross the fine line between campy good fun and simply not trying. One describes an act on a gorilla that cannot be described on a family website.
Historical influences aside, the film, like the many Tarzan movies that came before it, was obviously made in the spirit of entertainment. To say that it’s preposterous would be to miss the point entirely; it was preposterous all the way back in 1912, when Edgar Rice Burroughs published Tarzan of the Apes, the first of his twenty-four Tarzan novels. We know the title character so well by now that I don’t have to explain why. I’m compelled to point out, however, that director David Yates continues a long-standing tradition, namely glossing over the impossibility of a man not having a beard despite being raised in the jungle without access to a razor and shaving lather.
Taking the reins from a long list of Tarzan actors – including Gordon Griffith, Johnny Weissmüller, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, and Casper Van Dien – is Alexander Skarsgård, whose near constant shirtlessness reveals that he did indeed get in shape for the role. Because the film begins with Tarzan back in England, where he goes by his birth name of John Clayton, we’re thankfully spared the annoyance of hearing him speak in pidgin English (no “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” here). When he returns to Africa, the filmmakers avoid all temptations to have him communicate with animals as Dr. Doolittle would, “speaking” in their various “languages.” Instead, we see plausible exchanges in which he takes on specific animal mannerisms. Example: When he approaches a herd of lions, he slowly kneels, bows his head, and lets one of the lions affectionately headbutt him.
Margot Robbie plays Jane, Clayton’s American wife, and although she does invariably get kidnapped and has to be rescued, she’s far from the overwrought damsel in distress; she can throw a punch and use her wits, and she knows how to use her upbringing in an African village to her advantage. As for the villain, we have the ever-reliable Christoph Waltz. He plays Leon Rom, a merciless Belgian Captain who oversees Leopold II’s operations and seeks to capitalize on the kidnapping and delivery of Tarzan to a vengeful African tribal chief (Djimon Hounsou). While I feel sorry that Waltz has fallen into the trap of typecasting, who can currently play a villain more convincingly?
If there is a weakness to The Legend of Tarzan, it would be the subplot involving Hounsou’s character. Given the excitement already created by Rom’s dastardly deeds, a chief seeking revenge against Clayton for the death of his son feels unnecessary. But on the whole, the film is a great deal of fun and a pleasure to look at, especially in IMAX 3D – although the filmmakers do push the limits of gimmickiness with a shot of a running ostrich snapping its beak directly at the camera. It’s not meant to be taken seriously. It never was. I shouldn’t have to state something so obvious, but given its negative pre-release buzz, especially in regards to its “generic plot,” I guess people sometimes need some friendly reminding.