The Legend of Tarzan is, along with The Shallows, another surprisingly good film of 2016 (and forget what the Tomatometer says). I went into this film with extremely low expectations and The Legend of Tarzan exceeded all of them. That’s not to say that the film is great or even very good, no it's far from it. But The Legend of Tarzan isn’t a terrible either. It's an epic reimagining of Tarzan that stumbles but succeeds in being a satisfying adventure film.
Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), by the time our film begins, is already a famous celebrity in England and has all but disavowed his previous life as “King of the Jungle”. Tarzan now lives in England and is married to Jane (Margot Robbie). He now goes by his family title of Lord Greystoke (as well as his real name John Clayton III) and lives in an impressive manor. He is invited back to The Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium ostensibly to see how awesome it is under colonial rule. He is very reticent to go until George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), an American envoy, convinces him to investigate rumors of illegal slavery. Once back in The Congo, a sinister plot unfolds and Jane is kidnapped. Tarzan and Williams must journey through the dangerous Congo to rescue Jane and save the country.
The plot is unfortunately needlessly complex. One part revenge tale, part rescue mission, part blood diamond, and part save Africa the movie. It can get confusing, but the film moves quickly enough so it's never overwhelming. Despite this, the plot does get bogged down trying to do many different things at once. The villain's overarching plot is especially confusing once you think about it. I did however like that they kept most of the “classic” Tarzan story, and showed it in flashbacks concurrent to the main story.
The glue that holds the messy story together is the main cast. The acting is quite good in The Legend of Tarzan and that’s because the filmmakers hired an A-List squad. Alexander Skarsgård stars as the titular character and got extremely ripped for the role. He initially plays the character as a somber reserved man who has put the “King of the Jungle” squarely in the past. But once back in the Congo, he gradually reverts back to Tarzan proper. Margot Robbie plays Jane Porter Clayton, Tarzan’s wife. To the filmmakers credit, they portray her as a very educated, strong willed woman who will not be held back by Tarzan or any man for that matter. Having said that, she spends most of the movie as a prisoner and damsel in distress for Tarzan to rescue her. (You can’t win them all)
Unlike in Spectre, the talents of the magnificent Christoph Waltz do not go to waste here. Waltz plays the villain, Captain Léon Rom, King Leopold II’s ruthless consul whose goal is to control The Congo. In attempting to do so he hatches a plan that brings him into contact with Tarzan and co. Rom, while evil, is extremely loyal to his king and his country. His motivations are quite clear despite his ends always justifying the means. He plays an understated villain who came from a poor family and bristles at the “blue-blooded” Tarzan. Djimon Hounsou and Samuel L. Jackson round out the supporting cast. Jackson is quite good in this film as George Washington Williams. Playing a comedic and sidekick foil to Tarzan’s stoic almost superhuman heroism, Jackson’s presence grounds the movie in a sort of realism and prevents it from becoming a ridiculous farce. He’s also given a cliched but welcome backstory as a remorseful and crack shot Civil War (American) soldier.
The Legend of Tarzan is very on the nose regarding its themes. The film takes a strong stance against European colonialism, racism and slavery, and war profiteering. It does not shy away from showing unsavory aspects of colonial history either. The film accomplishes all this by using Tarzan as a white savior. I didn’t mind the white savior trope because, I mean, it’s Tarzan, and that’s the backbone of its mythology. I actually found all of the political tie-ins of the late 19th century quite intriguing. Unfortunately, it struggles to meld its strong moral backstory onto this grand epic adventure tale. Having said that, I appreciated the film for trying rather than churning out what could have been another hollow blockbuster.
Much of what you’d expect from a Tarzan film is still there as well, it’s just been given a fresh coat of paint. The famous howl and the vine swinging are both present but thankfully kept to a minimum. The film also teases whether or not Tarzan can actually talk to animals or whether he is basically an excellent trainer. You never hear any of the animals speak, nor does Tarzan communicate with them other than through guttural sounds or calls, which I thought was neat. The CGI is also a second rate, especially in regard to the excellent animal CGI we have seen recently in The Jungle Book and Dawn of The Planet of The Apes.
The Legend of Tarzan tries to do too much and fails to properly balance its many pieces. The film attempts to have depth, but applies it quite awkwardly. However, it tries admirably, and unlike most critics, I quite enjoyed it. Despite its muddled story, some bad CGI, it’s a dark adventure tale with a great cast. It’s not too long and doesn’t wear out its welcome.
TLDR: The Legend of Tarzan is an epic retelling of Tarzan with decent action and great acting. But the film is held back by lousy CGI, lazy tropes, and tedious plot points 3.5/5 Stars.