FILM REVIEW – THE LEGEND OF TARZAN. With Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou. Written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. Directed by David Yates. Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue. 109 minutes.
Well, it’s not as bad as the 2013 reboot of “The Lone Ranger.” In spite of the overt racism of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, there’s an attempt in THE LEGEND OF TARZAN to treat the black African characters with dignity, and make the story about preventing a European colonial power from creating a slave state in the Congo. However, it’s not enough.
How John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) became Tarzan, a human raised by apes who can communicate with animals and survive in the jungle, is told in a series of flashbacks, as is how he met Jane (Margot Robbie), who becomes his wife. In the late 19th century “present,” John is asked to return to Africa as the behest of the King of Belgium, supposedly to see the country’s good works there. In fact, as American diplomat George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) explains, it’s really about uncovering the slave trade.
The problem with the film is that it’s essentially a shaggy dog story. The king’s representative Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) wants to capture and kill Tarzan so he can get the diamonds from Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) that will pay off Belgium’s heavy debt. When Tarzan and Williams escape a raid, Jane is left as the “damsel in distress” who needs rescuing. That she’s feisty and independent is a nod towards modern sensibilities. She’s still there as, essentially, a pretty prize whom Tarzan must save.
The mix of live action and CGI is well done, although there’s little dramatic build. Tarzan must fight his gorilla “brother.” It’s a powerful moment that, ultimately, changes nothing. If the sequence was removed from the film, you wouldn’t know it had been there.
The cast each hits the single notes that their roles require. As Tarzan, Skarsgård is buff and heroic. Robbie, who may be one of the most striking actresses on screen today in terms of her looks, is loyal and independent. Waltz’s smooth villain Rom is a part he can play in his sleep and has done much better elsewhere. Jackson is wry as the American black diplomat out of his element in Africa, but he is essentially playing the role of “black sidekick” whose character gets little to do on his own.
It’s all rather flat and predictable, a story we’ve seen many times before even if you’ve never seen a “Tarzan” movie.The reason this seems to have been made is because the CGI special effects allows all sorts of scenes of gorillas, lions, hippopotamuses, and other wildlife which would have been difficult to get in prior films. It’s not enough, impressive though it is. Indeed, after the recent remake of “The Jungle Book,” it seems unnecessary.
“The Legend of Tarzan” is an adequate way to pass some time, but not much more than that.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.