Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan
Unfolding an expansive peek inside the realm of the fictional "King of the Jungle" Tarzan, created by author Edgar Rice Burroughs, the latest adaptation of the famous ape-man escalates not only the historical origins of the feral character, but also the gripping adventure that defined his legacy. Divulging revolutionary colonial discoveries, all while spinning a tale of heroism and sacrifice, The Legend of Tarzan managed to deliver an effective adventure, keeping the legacy of Tarzan alive and well even after an innumerable amount of on-screen and off-screen portrayals.
After leaving behind his old life in the African wilderness, and successfully earning the title of Lord Greystoke of England, John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) suddenly finds himself being drawn back into his life as Tarzan when King Leopold II invites him to report on the development of the Congo by Belgium. Hesitant at first, fearing that he will be influenced to return to his old ways, an American envoy named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), desperate to uncover the true imperial involvement of Leopold in the Congo, urges Clayton to go with him. As the two embark deeper into the Congolese jungle, with John's wife, Jane Porter (Margot Robbie), by his side, they uncover a plot devised not only to gain immense riches for a conniving Belgian captain (Christoph Waltz), but also to draw out the true animal within the man once known as Tarzan.
With nearly 200 films, over two dozen literary works by Burroughs, and countless appearances in comics, radio, and television under his belt (or loincloth that is), Tarzan isn't too hard a concept to sell. A tale of tragedy, indifference, history, and at the forefront, perilous adventure set within the mysterious depths of the African jungle, the character Edgar Rice Burroughs created more than a hundred years ago has since captivated audiences (with various degrees of critical response), utilizing its fascinating story of a man who became something else entirely because of unruly yet beautiful nature of the jungle. Uprooting that tale once more this year, The Legend of Tarzan effectively sold me again on the tale, applying its own ounce of historical flair and crafty storytelling to tweak the legendary character. Ultimately adding up to an exciting experience -- not without its numerous missteps along the way -- the newest adventure with Tarzan never once disgraced the legacy of Burroughs' character, even when it did dive into more far-fetched themes.
While its plot does circulate around a handful of implausible (or more or less overtly fictional) elements, like ancient African tribes bent on revenge or apes raising feral children, The Legend of Tarzan does excel in crafting a worthy historical basis in which its version of the ape-man is set. Taking influence from Burroughs' expansive literary chapters with the character, the film finds Tarzan aka John Clayton III in Victorian England, following the Berlin Conference and the subsequent divide of the African Congo. Featuring real-life characters like George Washington Williams and Belgian captain Léon Rom, the historical atmosphere of this film is one thing I found very appealing. Yes, while some of the context might be skewed or looked over, the intriguing setting of imperialist Europe and the victimized African areas in which we find this version of Tarzan made the film feel significant in nature, compared to other stories featuring the character that often feel uninspired or are in poor taste.
Among its broad, historical settings, we find the film's cast, an odd mix of characters submerged in both effective characterization and blatant stereotypes. From the silent hero forced to pick up old habits in order to save the one he loves to the comic relief and the conniving, mustachioed antagonist, the characters in the film -- as captivating as some of them were -- were definitely flawed in more ways than one. Aside from their stereotypical and clichéd portrayals, a handful of the cast did offer up decent performances in order to sway the audience's judgement. Taking on the titular role, we have the True Blood hunk Alexander Skarsgård. Amassing a worthy performance beyond his eye-catching Tarzan build and luscious locks of auburn hair, Skarsgård brought an elegant silence to the character, all while delivering sharp lines of wit when necessary. While he was a bit dull in terms of personality, I thought Skarsgård worked well with what he had and managed to embody the character pretty well.
As for the remainder of the cast, while it may be star-studded and full of charisma and malice, it does fall into the stereotypical more than a few times. As Jane, Tarzan's daring wife whom he meets while in the jungle, Margot Robbie offers up yet another delightful -- while not very memorable -- supporting role. Enjoying her in films like last year's caper rom-com Focus and the indie sci-fi Z for Zachariah, Robbie has established herself beyond just another pretty face. Displaying an ounce of confidence and bravery to prevent her character from becoming your typical damsel-in-distress, while I enjoyed her performance, I was still left with the impression that she did only serve to bait Tarzan into the villain's grasps.
While I greatly enjoyed Christoph Waltz as your typical imperialist villain and Djimon Hounsou as the vengeful African chief seeking Tarzan's head on a spear, one character I was quite indifferent towards was Samuel L. Jackson's George Washington Williams. Played off as a comic relief for the majority of the film, which wasn't too difficult a task for old Sam Jackson, the character felt increasingly unneeded as the film went on. Acting as Tarzan's liaison and partner-in-crime as they trekked through the African wilderness, Jackson's character was ultimately there for two reasons only: to draw in the crowd of his fans and his films (most likely all Quentin Tarantino pictures) and to make you laugh your loincloth off. While I found his character enjoyable at times, offering up a radical opposing opinion to the silent and straight-forward Tarzan, his character ultimately felt unneeded and forced, giving the film a dry sense of humor among its mostly dramatic plot.
Overall, while the film's pace did create issues for it at certain points in its journey, and its characterization was flawed to some degree, The Legend of Tarzan was able to keep me wanting more as it chugged along. With a drop of cinematic magic among its storytelling and cinematography due for the most part to director David Yates (whose helmed a number of the Harry Potter films and its upcoming spin-off) and a gracious amount of star-power that works fantastically on some levels, the latest iteration of this classic literary character was an enjoyable adventure that wasn't afraid to bore us with a little history here and there. Action-packed and driven by its tale of one man drawn into a world much more complex and violent than his jungle upbringings, The Legend of Tarzan might not be legendary, but it was the definition of a great summer flick.
I gave this film a 7 out of 10 for its star-studded cast that worked well with what they were given, its brilliant cinematography and atmospherics that made for a magical and intense experience, and its captivating story that was equally as effective as the 1999 Disney film (just without the Phil Collins soundtrack).