Movie Review: Legend of Tarzan

A new look at the Lord of the Jungle tries to address real history but fails to deliver the thrills

Legend of Tarzan
Directed by David Yates
With Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Christoph Waltz

The tales of Tarzan, as written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, are a bit problematic in their depiction of Africa and the people who live there. The first stories came out in 1912, more than a century ago, and attitudes were different then.

A new film version called Legend of Tarzan tries to reinvent the character by adding some politics. The film begins after Tarzan, also known as Lord Greystoke, has grown up and returned to England. The exact details are left a bit fuzzy. Lord Greystoke / Tarzan (played by Alexander Skarsgård) lives in a stately manor with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie). Both try to fit in with life in 1890s England, but clearly their hearts are elsewhere.

The plot involves the Belgian colony of the Congo, which according to the film has been costing King Leopold II a fortune. His plan is to finance the colony by finding the legendary diamonds of Opar, which are guarded by a fierce tribe. He sends Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to find the diamonds. He does, but the chief is only willing to exchange them for his lifelong enemy, Tarzan.

Rom, based on a true character, lures Lord Greystoke back to the Congo, but he was not counting on Jane coming along, nor a US emissary George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), also based on a real person.

The story tries to explore the horrors of colonialism, showing that entire tribes were being uprooted and enslaved to build railroads in the Congo. The Africans in the film are depicted as fully developed characters, with feelings and motivations, which is a plus for this kind of film. There is also an effort to show the Congo as a specific place, rather than treat Africa as if it was one giant country.

But the setup quickly gets into trouble. The politics that were so carefully developed are set aside and the film turns into a damsel-in-distress tale. Jane does still come off as a strong character, but it is disappointing that the film didn’t set its aspirations a bit higher than creating an extended chase scene.

What is worse, though, is that Tarzan is a crashing bore. While the film is trying to show the human side of a larger than life character, it goes too far. Alexander Skarsgård breathes no life into the role. Both Lord Greystoke and Tarzan are cold and aloof, with little energy or humor. It is perhaps the most lackluster Tarzan since Miles O'Keeffe in the 1981 film Tarzan, the Ape Man, which was made to showcase model turned actress Bo Derek.

Samuel L. Jackson can usually save a misguided project, and he does his best as a former Indian fighter who drops hints that he regrets his participation in the US conflicts with Native Americans and wishes to stop the same from happening in Africa. He actually brings the range of emotion and humor that the lead character should have had; unfortunately he is not the main focus of the film. He should have been. The character he plays, George Washington Williams, actually did investigate slavery in the Congo and make efforts to stop it.

Christoph Waltz also tries hard as the villain Léon Rom, and does a nice portrait of a truly evil man who covers it all up with Continental charm and good manners. He is truly vile as he tries to woo his captive Jane. Léon Rom in real life is supposed to have been an inspiration for the novel Heart of Darkness. His cruelty in executing Congolese natives is well documented.

Jane is another stumbling block. Margot Robbie is let down by the script. She creates a very strong character who can be both tough and feminine, and who can speak her mind. Unfortunately, the filmmakers couldn’t figure out what to do with her so they let her get kidnapped so she would have to be rescued. She is clever and resourceful even as a captive, but if the filmmakers wanted to update the old clichés they could have given her a more pro-active role than shackled hostage.

But what finally sinks the film is poor and poorly places special effects. Some of the animals just don’t seem real. A flock of ostriches in particular is a bit awkward. Tarzan in the novels can rally animals with his yell, and when this happens in the film it is another endless CGI mess.

Computer generated scenes of Tarzan swinging on vines also seem to defy the laws of math and physics, again detracting from overall effect of the film.

There is a good story in here, but it is the one with Léon Rom and George Washington Williams. If they had just left out Tarzan and Jane, this could have been a great film.

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