One of the exciting things about seeing trailers for “The Legend of Tarzan” was how much of an update it looked like compared to past efforts over the last 40 years. No mostly naked Bo Derek sitting around with chimpanzees, telling Tarzan she’s a virgin while eating a banana. No Andie MacDowell having her voice dubbed because it sounded too Southern. No Rosie O’Donnell voicing an animated gorilla with a New York accent.
This was supposed to be a modern Tarzan, with quality actors with appropriate accents, CGI finally making the apes terrifying, and a well-constructed, original story that manages to pay enough tribute to the original Edgar Rice Burroughs books.
And “The Legend of Tarzan” delivers on all of those general expectations.
So why does it feel uninspiring?
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The story of Tarzan is one of the greatest adventures ever told and, doubtless, it’s difficult to duplicate on the big screen and keep things believable (apes speaking their own language with a man who can kill anything with a small knife and whose best friend is an elephant). That said, it wasn’t a bad try. Alexander Skarsgard is a solid actor, and certainly physically trained enough to look like a guy who swings from trees and battles apes. But he approached the role as if Tarzan was a stoic and unfeeling character, without a sense of humor, which isn’t the same thing as being a strong character. The great action heroes are human enough to identify with. They make people want to be them, to at least some degree. Skarsgard doesn’t do that, and it’s the film’s biggest flaw.
The story takes place in the late 19th century, after Tarzan has already transitioned into his role of John Clayton, the Earl of Greystoke. He and the former Jane Porter (Margot Robbie, in a role that doesn’t entirely fit her) are married and settled in London. Belgium has colonized the Congo, and Britain has dispatched Clayton as an envoy to the colony. It’s no coincidence that this also happens to be where the former Tarzan grew up with a tribe of local apes.
Belgium’s leader in the area, Capt. Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), has made a deal for his country involving one of Clayton’s old enemies, Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). While John and Jane renew acquaintances at the village in which she spent part of her life with her scientist father, Rom unleashes his scheme to further enslave the locals, capturing Jane and sending Clayton back into Tarzan mode.
Perhaps to make up for the lack of warmth elsewhere, Samuel Jackson is enlisted to play George Washington Williams, an American envoy who accompanies Clayton to Africa. Jackson’s role is clearly to not only offer some comic relief, but also to make his co-stars more relatable. Jackson is fine in the role – as usual – but it would’ve been nice to see more of that lightness in Skarsgard’s acting.
Tarzan and Williams pursue Rom, encounter Tarzan’s old troop – forcing Tarzan to have it out with a “relative” – then deal with his human enemies. All this leads to the climactic scene involving many animals rampaging through a port city, which is difficult not to enjoy (as long as you’re rooting for the animals). The CGI isn’t seamless, but it’s believable, and the gorgeous location shooting lends authenticity not seen previously in a Tarzan movie. And, to director David Yates’ credit, the story arc is solid, without too many holes (there are holes in the story that only serious fans of the books might complain about, but they’re minor).
Yates also had to be true to the original stories while being sensitive to modern feelings about portraying Africans. Tarzan and Jane certainly treat them as contemporaries, at least as much as can be expected, though there are a few moments with Mbonga’s people where stereotypes were about to creep in. Yates performs a decent balancing act.
The film also does a good job of transitioning back to Tarzan’s story of origin throughout the movie, showing how he came to Africa, how he was raised by apes, and how he met Jane. The flashbacks don’t dominate, but they allow enough backstory to fill in the uninitiated.
On one hand, “The Legend of Tarzan” is likely the best version of Burroughs’ Tarzan we’ve seen. On the other, it seems like there’s still room for another try. Which might be a blessing for fans, after all.
The Legend of Tarzan
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality, brief rude dialogue. Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz. Director: David Yates. Running time: 109 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21 (2D, 3D), Edwards 9 (2D, 3D), Edwards 14 (2D, 3D), Edwards 9 (2D, 3D), Majestic 18 (2D, 3D), Village Cinema.