David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan does an effective job bringing the iconic King of the Jungle back to the big screen in a way that stays true to the classic books. With beautiful cinematography and a surprisingly strong lead performance by Alexander Skarsgard, The Legend of Tarzan delivers an entertaining adaptation of literature’s first super hero. However, will this film resonate with modern audiences who are unfamiliar with the character?
The character of Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs over 100 years ago (having debuted in All Stories Weekly magazine in 1912) and has been adapted over 100 times internationally, on film and TV. The majority of these projects have ranged from mediocre-to-poor, with only a few actual gems in the bunch. Only a small handful of them touched upon the spirit of the Burroughs books. It’s been a long while since there has been a live-action version of Tarzan on the screen and long-time fans (myself included) have been hoping that this latest attempt to reintroduce the Ape Man to modern viewers would be worth the wait. Is it? Well, that depends upon your expectations. If you're a Tarzan fan, then the answer is "Yes". If not...probably "No."
If you’re a fan of the 1999 Disney animated musical Tarzan, this movie is not for you. If you are expecting the mono-syllabic, Pidgin-English “Me Tarzan, you Jane” stereotype that has been perpetuated for so long, this movie is not for you. However, if you’re looking for a fun, emotionally-infused adventure that resonates with the mythic quality of the old ERB tales, then your patience has been rewarded. The story mixes real historical facts with the classic ERB mythos to create an interesting scenario that makes for a rather busy plot which doesn’t quite pay off as well as it should but still makes for a strong narrative that unfolds with commitment and energy.
The story takes place in 1890 (which moves up the established literary timeline of Tarzan) when Africa was being divided up by the world powers. King Leopold of Belgium has begun to illegally utilize slave labor to mine diamonds in the Congo. These slaves are governed by sinister Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has also made a deal with local tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) who wants the head of Tarzan on a plate. George Washington Williams (played by the ever-present Samuel L. Jackson) a journalist, lawyer and former Civil War soldier wants to expose Leopold’s crimes. (This character is based on a real-life person who worked to uncover Leopold’s illegalities.) He approaches Lord John Clayton the Earl of Greystoke, AKA Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard). The former jungle man has retired from adventuring and reclaimed his aristocratic heritage in order to live a quiet life in England with his beautiful wife Jane (Margot Robbie). Although he is reluctant to return to Africa, Williams convinces him to do the right thing, and Jane comes along to assist her husband because she misses Africa and the old life of excitement they used to have.
The trio are ambushed by Rom soon after arrival. Williams saves Tarzan’s life, but Jane is captured by Rom to use as bait to lure Tarzan to Mbonga, who has an old vendetta against him. The latter half of the film shows Tarzan readjusting to life in the wild, while also tracking down Rom to rescue Jane. Williams accompanies him and they run into numerous obstacles during their quest.
Director Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films, does a very nice job in recapturing the duality of the Tarzan character. The emotional essence of Tarzan that he is a man torn between two worlds, and even when he is acting very civilized, it only takes a nudge for the feral part of him to come out. There’s a good moment in this film that captures this duality, when Tarzan suddenly snaps due to something Williams says and grabs him by the throat, slamming him into a wall, grunting “They have my wife!” That scene captures the ERB Tarzan in microcosm.
Margot Robbie is stunning and captivating as Jane. Her interpretation is wonderful, making Jane feisty, assertive and quicker with an insult than previous Janes have been. Happily, Yates avoids the overused cliché of turning Jane into a smug warrior-woman. She’s interesting and admirable without being violent. A lot of modern writers and directors should take notes from the way Yates handles female characters like Hermione Granger and Jane Porter Clayton.
Waltz, as usual, makes for a good villain, even if the character is a bit one-dimensional. They do try to add an extra layer to him by having him become enthralled with Jane, but it doesn’t play out as well as it could have. The moments between Robbie and Waltz could have been reminiscent of the scenes between Belloq and Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but they don’t work that well.
The film seems to be shot almost as a sequel to a non-existent first movie. We get a lot of references to Tarzan and Jane’s previous life and adventures. There are numerous short flashbacks during the movie about Tarzan’s origin and how he met Jane but the movie works on the premise that viewers know this character and understand his semi-feral nature. This makes the movie a faithful interpretation but it will also alienate viewers who don’t know anything about Tarzan beyond the Disney film.
Yates does a nice job with the relationship between Tarzan and Jane, allowing us to see their passion for each other and their long history together. He does the best at recapturing the original romantic essence of their relationship in the first novel since the early Johnny Weissmuller films Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and his Mate. Jane’s origins and the circumstances of her first meeting with Tarzan are changed, to make Jane seem less of an 1800s society girl and more of a world traveler and adventurer in her own right.
The CGI effects are hit-and-miss. The Mangani Ape tribe is rather well done but other animals, especially the lions, are so obviously SFX that they take you out of the movie. Since the film only had a total budget of $180 million, you can’t expect too much. On the flipside, the spectacular cinematography by Henry Brahan is almost worth the price of admission alone. He superbly captures the vast beauty of the African continent.
The plot doesn’t quite mesh together at the end as cleanly as it should have, with events degenerating into a standard chaotic action sequence with little character pay-off. Still, the point of the movie was not the conflict between Tarzan and Rom, it was about Tarzan’s accepting that the wild part of him will always be there at his core, and making up his mind about which world he really belongs in. That’s the heart of Tarzan.
The best and worst thing about this film is that its geared towards Tarzan fans, and sadly, there aren’t as many of us as there used to be. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed the ERB Tarzan books, this is the adaptation you’ve been wanting to see. If not, the appeal of this movie may escape you. It may not be a success at the Box Office—and the reviews have not been overly kind—but it will probably be remembered as one of the rare adaptations that has fidelity to the spirit of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.