REVIEW: ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ Reverent Take of Classic Character

Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic lord of the jungle, returns to Africa and the big screen in The Legend of Tarzan, a thrilling, romantic adventure tale told with intelligence and verve. The film is full of sweeping, majestic camera shots capturing the primal beauty of its setting, as well as engaging action that avoids retelling the well-known origin story in favor of a new vision. It’s a reverent take on Burrough’s work, as well as other adaptations that have come since.

What’s it about?

The film opens with John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård), Lord Greystoke, having left Africa and the name “Tarzan” behind years before in order to carry on his family’s name and fortune in Victorian England. Lord Greystoke reluctantly accepts an invitation by King Leopold of Belgium to serve as a trade emissary on a trip to the Congo region of Africa, where the king wishes to show off good works his nation has undertaken for the people there.

However, the invitation and trade mission are all part of an elaborate trap laid by Leopold’s proxy in the region, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz). Rom intends to capture “Tarzan” and deliver him to an old enemy in return for diamonds to pay a mercenary army to seize complete control of the Congo and its mineral riches.

Rom’s initial efforts to capture Lord Greystoke run into a snag due to the presence of Lady Greystoke, Jane Porter Clayton (Margot Robbie), who refused to remain in England and accompanies her husband back to the land she also considers “home.” Rom then takes Jane hostage in order to lure Greystoke to his eventual death, forcing the British lord to abandon the trappings and civility of “John Clayton” in order to be the man he must in order to save his wife and all that he loves in Africa: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle.

The Legend of Tarzan one-sheet

Script, direction stand apart

At first glance, The Legend of Tarzan may appear to be just another reboot, another typical big budget summer extravaganza high on big action and low on everything else. However, the film does stand apart from the usual fare thanks to a well-crafted story and script by Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow). Cozad and Brewer deliver fully realized characters in their screenplay that should feel both familiar and evolved to anyone who knows the classic Tarzan story.

Director David Yates (the final four “Harry Potter” films) and cinematographer Henry Braham (The Golden Compass) also do a tremendous job in capturing the striking, untamed beauty of the natural world in which most of the film takes place. Yes, there’s a great deal of CGI at work in The Legend of Tarzan, and many of those jaw-dropping landscapes and panoramas were added later in the production. However, you’d never know it, just watching it all unfold, it’s that well executed.

Cast more than just comely

The cast in The Legend of Tarzan also delivers a solid effort, though most of the bigger names take on roles that don’t require much of a stretch.

As an on-screen couple bringing to life one of cinema’s oldest and most recognized romantic pairings, Skarsgård and Robbie display great chemistry as Tarzan and Jane. The film’s structure and setting requires above all that audiences buy into the powerful connection between the two, and in every scene they share that connection is electric. It helps that neither one of them is very hard on the eyes, but that’s just the beginning of what make this Tarzan-Jane pairing compelling.

It can be argued that the cast’s three Oscar-nominated members — Jackson, Hounsou, and Waltz — aren’t really pushed in their roles to play beyond type. Jackson, playing real-life American soldier-turned-activist George Washington Williams, is mostly relegated to comic relief duty. Waltz, meanwhile, once again plays an unfailingly polite, cultured, well-spoken and thoroughly despicable heavy, one more for his résumé.

Even Hounsou gets to do little more than glare as the tribal chieftain with a grudge against Tarzan. What these acclaimed performers do they of course do well, but audiences who’ve seen them at their best know they’re capable of far more.

Worth seeing?

Admittedly, due to the fact that it’s being released just a few months after Disney’s latest big screen Jungle Book adaptation, The Legend of Tarzan will most likely have to suffer from comparisons, and audiences’ appetite for another feral-child-grows-up jungle adventure may not be what they might have been any other year. Regardless of how different the two films are in terms of tone and story, the surface similarities are unavoidable.

However, taken on its own merits, you could do a lot worse than The Legend of Tarzan. In many ways, it’s good old-fashioned adventure entertainment in the mold of the original Tarzan serials. If you go in expecting that kind of entertainment, it’s unlikely you’ll be disappointed.

The Legend of Tarzan

Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, and Christoph Waltz. Directed by David Yates.
Running Time: 109 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.