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Review: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Directed by: David Yates

Premise: An English nobleman (Alexander Skarsgård) who was raised in the jungle by apes returns to Africa with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) to investigate the Belgian colonization of the Congo. While there he discovers a conspiracy to enslave the Congolese people.

What Works: Tarzan is one of the most iconic characters of both literary fiction and Hollywood moviemaking and the character has been presented in every format from animated Disney films to syndicated television programs. But the filmmakers of The Legend of Tarzan have created a unique version of the character and present Tarzan in a way that is relevant for the contemporary audience. The film benefits from a smart story structure. The filmmakers are saddled with a unique problem; everybody in the audience knows who Tarzan is but this movie isn’t building upon an existing cinematic storyline. Rather than making this a standard origin story, The Legend of Tarzan plays almost like a sequel and then fills in the backstory with some efficient and well-timed flashbacks. The movie begins with Tarzan, whose British name is John Clayton III, living the comfortable life in England with his wife. He is contacted by an American human rights investigator, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who suspects that King Leopold of Belgium is enslaving the people of the Congo for a massive mining operation. The trio travel to Africa and Tarzan and Jane revisit the people and places of their youth. For an action picture, the movie has a good natured quality about it and that is evident in the way it presents the local people. Historically, when Hollywood goes to Africa it usually isn’t good for the Africans; earlier film adaptations of Tarzan have been marred by a racist regard for the indigenous people. The portrait of the African people and their culture in The Legend of Tarzan is empathetic and nuanced. The movie is also able to make Tarzan’s relationship with the wildlife mostly credible. The animals are still animals and Tarzan is less of a magical animal whisperer and more of a naturalist who has tremendous knowledge of these creatures and their behaviors. The Legend of Tarzan also benefits from the casting of Alexander Skarsgård in the lead. Skarsgård’s understated approach to the role makes his Tarzan a bit different from other versions and he embodies the tension between the wild and civilized aspects of Tarzan’s personality.

What Doesn’t: The Legend of Tarzan is in some ways an old fashioned movie. Contemporary action films tend to string together one action set piece after another. This film is actually light on the action, at least in its first half. This portion of the movie focuses on Tarzan’s return to Africa and it is admirable how character driven it is but the movie takes a while to get going and it suffers from a lack of set pieces. Another area where The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t quite meet expectations is the relationship between Tarzan and Jane. It’s difficult to say whether actors Alexander Skarsgård and Margot Robbie have chemistry because they spend so little of the movie together. The film does not really convey why these two are in love or give the viewer a feeling of the devotion that they have for one another. Robbie is underutilized in the film. The actress punches up her scenes with spunk and energy but the film keeps her firmly within the role of the damsel in distress. One of the interesting aspects of The Legend of Tarzan is the way that it incorporates the history of European colonialism into the story. The film plays as a critique of the colonialist era but The Legend of Tarzan is also overly simplistic in this regard. Without giving too much away, Tarzan and his allies revolt against a European colonialist power. But the filmmakers oversimplify both the causes and the resolution of colonialism.

Bottom Line: The Legend of Tarzan is an entertaining piece of work. It’s not a great movie but the filmmakers find a way to reintroduce the character for today’s audience and they’ve spun a fun adventure yarn.

Episode: #602 (July 10, 2016)