The Legend of Tarzan is the latest screen version of the character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912. With a cast headed up by Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie and Christoph Waltz, and directed by David Yates (who will forever be in my good books for helming the classic BBC serial, State of Play, and more famously headed up the final four Harry Potter films), this take on Tarzan has a lot of production wattage.
It also feels like a genuine attempt to transfer Burroughs’ Tarzan to the screen, complete with (thankfully) a cultured, sophisticated lead character (as opposed to the more frequently featured noble savage) and much of the background material from the books, while updating things slightly for a modern sensibility (including some far too contemporary sounding dialogue, unfortunately).
The story sees Tarzan, Lord John Clayton III, having left Africa behind almost a decade previously, now living in Victorian England with his wife, Jane. The two become involved in a plot set in motion by Leon Rom, a treacherous envoy for King Leopold of Belgium, to lure the jungle lord back to the Congo. Rom plans to capture Tarzan and deliver him to an old enemy in exchange for diamonds which will pay for an army to take over the continent.
Skarsgård makes a fine John Clayton/Tarzan, gifting him with a quiet intelligence and a restrained fierceness, Robbie continues to impress, giving us a feisty, admirable Jane Porter Clayton, while Samuel L. Jackson tones down many of his usual Samuel L. Jackson-isms for a character that always stays just the right side of comic relief. Christoph Waltz, as Rom, is far too talented to be anything other than entertaining, but his character lacks some truly defining dialogue and moments to make him rise above the actor’s increasingly familiar toolbox of tricks.
Yates strives for a Tarzan film that falls between the mythic grandeur of 1984’s Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (phew) and the gung ho nature of the 1930s-40s MGM Johnny Weissmuller films, and mostly succeeds. Unfortunately, the script, while perfectly serviceable, feels two or three polish drafts away from anything truly memorable – dialogue works but never sparkles or shines.
The film is also highly inconsistent in some of its production values. Many edits are inelegant, with some clumsy transitions. Sometimes the CGI work is wonderful – such as a small but sweet moment where Tarzan bonds with some lions, and sometimes it’s almost wilfully bad – the wildebeests seen in the trailer or a shot near the climax of a rowboat approaching the camera, which has it practically floating through nothing.
Despite these caveats, The Legend of Tarzan moves at an admirably classical pace, it treads around issues of colonialism with broad but well defined strokes (even if, in real life the Belgians ruled the Congo for another 70 years), is well cast and handsomely mounted, and it mostly looks wonderful, with sweeping vistas of plains and deep, emerald forests. It deserves plaudits for not insulting the audience with yet another origin story (though Tarzan’s backstory is present in the form of flashbacks), and there’s good chemistry between the two leads. It gave me a genuine chill of delight to hear an updated version of the classic Weissmuller Tarzan yell (though it would have been nice to actually see him do it, rather than just hear it – a result of post-production tweaks, perhaps) and definitely left me wanting to spend more time with these versions of the characters for further adventures.
While somewhat frustrating, this is still an entertaining and enjoyable Tarzan film for a modern blockbuster audience, proving the one hundred and twelve year old character is still the one, true king of the swingers. Next time he just needs to swing a little higher.