Directed by David Yates from a screenplay by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, The Legend of Tarzan is yet another filmic incarnation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs character. This 2016 picture doesn’t bring much by way of novelty to the tale and seems torn from the superhero movie playbook, complete with copious CGI and gusty action.
The character of Tarzan is well-known. Born to marooned noble British parentage in Africa, he was adopted and raised by an ape tribe after the deaths of his mom and dad. After meeting other humans, Tarzan eventually leaves the jungle and heads for civilization. He ultimately rejects society, at least in the stories, and his primitivism was embraced by many.
The movie opens with the Belgians claiming control of the Congo and the king sending his envoy Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to snag some fabled diamonds from Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). In exchange for the diamonds, Mbonga wants Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård).
The trouble is that Tarzan is now known as Lord Greystoke and is living it up in London with his American wife Jane (Margot Robbie). He is invited back to the Congo by American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) because the Belgians are enslaving the Congolese. This puts him Rom’s sights.
The Cozad and Brewer screenplay is interesting in its resolve to blend bits of the Burroughs story with elements of history, which is where the characters of Rom and Williams come into play. Rom was a vicious historical figure, with his work in command at Stanley Falls providing plenty of brutal stories. And Williams tried to ring the gong about slavery in Congo.
The Legend of Tarzan’s inclusion of a black hero is without archetypal parallel in the source material, so it’s kind of a nice touch for the cinematic version. That said, it’s hard to shake the essence of the Burroughs character as some sort of white saviour – regardless of the heft of his companions.
From a cinematic standpoint, Yates’ film is routine. It is ripped from the superhero movie playbook, complete with broad barrelling action set pieces, wanton destruction and an impossibly impervious hero that only takes his lumps at the hands of a Mangani ape. This leads to some interesting if standard sequences, like when Tarzan and Washington set upon a slave-carrying train.
Skarsgård doesn’t make for the most compelling lead character, with his cut profile and flowing locks carving out a predictable aesthetic for the jungle’s conqueror. Chemistry between Tarzan and Jane is woven mostly through flashback, although Robbie tries to bring some pluck to a character stuffed with shortcuts to feminine strength.
There isn’t a lot of life in The Legend of Tarzan and it is an unremarkable experience more than anything. Its desire to win audiences with a somewhat more diverse thrust is decent, but there’s nothing to be found in the aggregate that sinks in. As such, Yates’ vision is a stilted and boring one – even with a few hungry, hungry hippos.