In 1999, Disney perfected the adventure and fun of Tarzan by transitioning from the man of the jungle from swinging on vines to surfing tree branches. What could possibly be accomplished from live-action adaptation The Legend of Tarzan that wasn’t already delivered in animation?
While director David Yates doesn’t exactly make Tarzan’s tree hopping all that original, he does delivers a welcome alternative take on the hero. It still ends up being popcorn entertainment, but not as generic as I expected.
What helps makes this version of Tarzan so much different than previous incarnations is how the picture glazes over the origins, which are reduced to short flashbacks. The Tarzan we meet in the 19th century, played by a buff Alexander Skarsgård, is a domesticated chap, uprooted from the jungle to trade in his loincloth and tree house for a suit and a castle. He finds himself being called back to the Congo on business, reluctant to return for the enemies he has made.
Tarzan’s wife Jane (Margot Robbie) is ecstatic to return and George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is eager to tag along to expose the slavery issue of the country. But when the corrupt Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) kidnaps Jane in exchange for Tarzan, it’s time for the muscle-bound jungle man to rip off his shirt, grab a vine and smack around some bad guys.
For an adventure movie that takes place in the Congo with native tribes, violent gorillas and sneering soldiers, it’s a project that could have easily gone south. Surprisingly, however, Tarzan narrowly avoids these pitfalls that could have made the movie condemnable. Every enemy Tarzan faces has a history and every action has a purpose to the point of actually saying something about slavery and the ravaging of civilizations.
But in trying to make the picture safe, Yates appears to have inoculated some of the spirit. This doesn’t exactly make the picture fall apart, but it does hold it back from being a grand epic as it favors a more standard adventure that’d fit right at home in the late 1990’s.
That being said, it’s a standard adventure with a few surprises along the way. Perhaps the most positive trait of The Legend of Tarzan is how much it pulls back from plot elements that could have gone awry. In particular, the origin is light on length and dark in presence, offering up the essential cliff notes that most moviegoers are familiar with by this point.
The overall plot is established quickly with a few opening exposition titles, a thrilling action sequence and a clear statement of Leon’s goal to trade Tarzan to a tribe for diamonds to build his army. Tarzan and Jane have been trying to have a child, but have been unsuccessful. This is only alluded to twice in the picture and never reaches the expected point where Jane discovers she’s pregnant amid the action. And the trademark call of Tarzan is understated enough to prevent it from being seen as too ridiculous.
The cast is all very solid as well. Alexander Skarsgård and Margot Robbie have real chemistry as an on-screen couple that has a history and a passion for each other. Samuel L. Jackson provides the comic relief as the wisecracking, gun-toting sidekick with a handful of amusing scenes. He’s a slight miscast in terms of setting, but a decent addition for some simple laughs. Christoph Waltz usually hams up his villain roles with that devilish grin and giddy attitude, but he appears subtler in this role hiding behind a mustache.
It can be seen as a waste of Waltz, but I can’t blame the director for trying to find more than just the usual cackler of such an antagonist. Armed with a rosary made out of spider silk, he’s a capable enough villain to battle Tarzan and present a threat to those around him. Lastly, Djimon Hounsou plays a tribal elder that may only be a secondary villain, but he proves once more why he’s THE guy you need as a secondary villain.
Read more to watch the trailer for The Legend of Tarzan: