The new movie The Legend of Tarzan is not your great-grandfather’s “Tarzan.”
I admit I went for Alexander Skarsgård’s admirable muscles and pecs, but stayed for the plot. I even went back for a second viewing.
The original “Tarzan of the Apes” was published in an early 20th century pulp magazine. Over the decades the Tarzan stories have been adapted for films and television. They have also moved with the times.
So now, we have The Legend of Tarzan, an updated telling of the story, and that updating is pretty good.
For anyone coming in late, Tarzan was actually the son of Lord John Clayton and his wife Alice who were shipwrecked on the African coast. The Claytons perish and their son, also named John, is raised by Kala, a female ape. Later, it’s discovered that Tarzan is the heir to Greystoke Manor and he returns to England.
By taking little bits out of the original Tarzan stories and an actual historical document “An Open Letter to King Leopold on the Congo, 1890”, The Legend of Tarzan‘s screenwriters built a workable plot based in the 1890s involving slavery in the Belgium Congo, massive uncut diamonds and revenge. The black natives are respected. The evil villain (Christoph Waltz) has reasons for doing what he does and they make sense. Jane’s (Margot Robbie) rebellious spirit also makes sense. In the original story, Jane Porter is an American. She is here as well and it’s a good touch. The story of Tarzan’s history is shown in flashbacks but a viewer never loses where they are in the story. The cinematography is beautiful and the music by Rupert Gregson-Williams is superb. The animals – apes, elephants, lions – come off okay despite being CGI.
While there are iffy moments, including too-modern dialogue, but most watchers will get carried along with the adventure story (as you do in the original book despite the racial stereotyping.)
The downside of The Legend of Tarzan is that everyone is so uptight at adapting this (old) story that it shows. You expect Waltz to twirl his moustache like a villain in a black-and-white silent movie at times. Robbie’s feisty Jane gets to clobber people but no one clobbers her back like would probably have happened. Frankly, she’s there as the lure for Tarzan to get captured and to be rescued.
I am certain that if she had died, Tarzan would be after Waltz’s balls with just as much energy as he shows here. Also, Waltz would die very slowly and painfully.
Since most moviegoers know the story of Tarzan, the writers have added a (real) American politician and fighter, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to move the plot along. Jackson is a former soldier, and mercenary, is haunted by what happened to the Native Americans in the decades after the American Civil War — horrible acts that he had a hand in. That’s one of the reasons he’s come to the Belgium Congo to prove that there’s enslavement of the natives — natives who are also Tarzan’s friends. Still, he doesn’t quite fit comfortably into the movie. Giving the writers’ kudos, at the end, they quote from Williams’ “Open Letter” to the King of Belgians calling him out on the treatment of the Congo natives.
On the other hand, he also provides moments of much-needed humor to the action sequences.
At the heart of The Legend of Tarzan is a love story that of Tarzan and Jane. Unlike many movies there’s no misunderstanding of the love between the man and woman. Here Jane has no doubt of her husband rescuing her. Greystoke/Tarzan has no thought outside of rescuing Jane. What is more romantic than that?
So you have an action plot, mercenaries and a top-notch villain, a history lesson, a beautiful woman who loves her husband, and her husband who is intelligent as well as looking like a magnificently muscled Greek god when stripped down to only his pants.
What more do you need for a summer movie?