Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Action and Violence, some Sensuality and brief Rude Dialogue
Directed by: David Yates
Written by: Adam Cozad & Craig Brewer
(based on the TARZAN novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent & Christoph Waltz
Hollywood loves to revisit classic characters (e.g. The Lone Ranger, Zorro, The Shadow, etc.), so it’s a bit odd that we haven’t seen a big-budget, live-action Tarzan film since 1984’s GREYSTOKE. It should be noted that a Tarzan reboot has been in the works since the early 2000’s, but kept running into various production problems and fell in development hell multiple times. This July, we finally have a new Tarzan film. However, this new adventure has been receiving negative reviews and might wind up as a box office flop. That’s a bit depressing, because THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is endearingly old-fashioned entertainment that is bound to make you laugh, get your adrenaline pumping, and feel the unique brand of movie magic that only good summer blockbusters can bring.
In 1889, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) has become civilized into London life. Now going under the name of John Clayton III and sipping tea with his pinky out, Tarzan hasn’t been back to the jungle or African Congo villages in years. Instead he spends his days at a sophisticated manor with his lovely wife Jane (Margot Robbie), but that changes when Tarzan receives an invitation from King Leopold of Belgium. Accompanied by Jane and American freedom fighter George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), Tarzan soon learns that the royal summons was not exactly what it appeared to be. If he wishes to save his wife and countless people from the tyranny of evil Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), Tarzan will have to revert back to his wild ways and trek through the treacherous jungle.
LEGEND OF TARZAN is directed by David Yates, who also helmed the latter half of the HARRY POTTER series. Injected with a grand visual style and capturing the sense of jungle adventure that its main character represents, this Tarzan story is simple to a fault and packs a ton of entertainment into less than two hours. What’s even more impressive is that it tells an origin story through flashbacks, while giving us a fresh adventure at the same time. The non-linear structure allows for well-placed flashbacks to fill us in on Tarzan’s beginnings and first encounters with Jane, while the main plot shows John Clayton III reverting to his old animalistic ways to save the day. If handled poorly, this approach could have backfired in a horribly misguided way. However, the flashbacks and 1889 storyline are perfectly balanced in that when one story begins to slow down, we are given more of the other narrative.
Alexander Skarsgard is a likable lead as Tarzan and looks massive compared to everyone else around him. Though I praised how cool the non-linear story is for a classic character like Tarzan, this structure doesn’t leave a lot of room for supporting characters. Samuel L. Jackson serves as comic relief and gets a lot of hilarious moments, trying to keep up with Tarzan as he ventures through the jungle to rescue Jane. Speaking of which, Margot Robbie isn’t necessarily good as Jane. She’s plays a damsel in distress, which I guess was her character’s sole function to begin with, but I didn’t see a believable romantic connection between her and Tarzan. Jane also seems to get captured more than Lois Lane.
On the villainous side of things, the always great Christoph Waltz plays sinister Captain Rom. Waltz seems to elevate any movie he’s in, especially when he’s playing a diabolical antagonist. That being said, I’d be lying if I said that Rom wasn’t a bland baddie. He just wants money and power, only receiving a handful of scenes to show off his evil chops. The only unique thing about his character is a strange weapon of choice, but that feels underdeveloped as well. Waltz is a fun enough villain, but I wish more time had been spent developing the character of Rom. Still, he seems entirely fleshed out when compared to Djimon Hounsou’s violent tribal leader who receives a whopping two scenes and better motivation for his villainy in a single less-than-a-minute-long flashback.
As far as the look of the film goes, LEGEND OF TARZAN was clearly put together with a lot of attention to detail and fantastic CGI. The animals look completely realistic, even when they’re doing things that animals wouldn’t normally be doing, such as engaging in a one-on-one fist fight with a human being. The action isn’t strictly limited to apes, elephants, and cheetahs either, as other wildlife pops up purely for exciting action, a satisfying villain comeuppance, and comic relief that’s actually funny. Even though the film wasn’t shot in Africa, the locations come off as totally believable. The film is gorgeously put together all around and an atmospheric soundtrack adds a further air of sophistication and excitement.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is one of the summer’s biggest surprises thus far. The film is exciting from start to finish, capturing the viewer’s imagination through an entertaining adventure that doesn’t feel the need to modernize itself through cheap jokes and revamped origins. The humor works on a timeless level. Samuel L. Jackson steals the show in certain scenes. Alexander Skarsgard plays a compelling Tarzan. The non-linear storytelling keeps things interesting and doesn’t simply retread a familiar origin story. Even in its faults, the film is still a lot of fun to watch. Christoph Waltz is always entertaining as a villain and the same can be said about his one-dimensional character here. Margot Robbie is simply a damsel in distress, but does what she can with those limitations. LEGEND OF TARZAN is simply a great adventure on the big screen and should satisfy those looking for pure old-fashioned entertainment.