Tarzan has long been a household name, bringing up memories of chest beating, vine swinging, and that famous yell that echoes through the jungle. He’s seen his day in old television adaptations and some animated features from Disney, but never in a big budget blockbuster.
Similar to The Lone Ranger or John Carter, classic heroes adapted for today’s audience (and both big box office failures), the relevancy of Tarzan remains unclear. Some may find his mythology silly and outdated while others may become uncomfortable by the story of a white male hero rescuing a tribe of black slaves. Regardless of your perceptions coming into the film, The Legend of Tarzan proves to be a surprisingly good action-adventure with plenty of heart, laughs, and emotional resonance. While it may have a few flaws, overall it packs a heavy punch and could be a welcome change for those fatigued by all the superheroes flying around.
Written by Adam Cozard and Craig Brewer and directed by David Yates, The Legend of Tarzan starts off with Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) now acclimated to modern life, living in London, and married to Jane (Margot Robie). However, he’s called back to the Congo when the American ambassador George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) tells him he believes the Belgian King Leopold is using slave labor to mine for diamonds and needs to gather evidence to prove it. In the meantime, an insidious plot is in motion by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), the Leopold’s emissary to the Congo, to lead Tarzan into a trap. Tarzan will have to reconnect with the wild and find his inner beast to face the many challenges ahead.
The beginning includes several unnecessary scenic shots with text explaining the setting and the backstory and from there the story takes its time building the plot, introducing old friends of Tarzan, and allowing time for character moments to create tension and empathy down the road. However, a quarter of the way through the movie, when the stakes get the highest, the plot takes off, and the action and adventure is non-stop. Yates weaves several storylines together, including flashbacks, but they were handled well and didn’t drag the story down.
Yates, best known for his work on the last four Harry Potter movies, has such a great eye for visual storytelling. Even when he is working with a different cinematographer, it’s easy to pick out his style. He loves to use low light, high contrasts with swooping dolly shots and depth of field to bring a rich experience to the story. He easily transitions from large scale gorgeous scenery to intimate and heart-pounding moments with great precision and timing, making the audience smell, taste, and feel Tarzan’s world. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it’s a beautifully shot film, but Yates ability to draw that beauty into the storytelling proves he’s a step above the rest.
Tarzan is a difficult main character to make both likable, understood, and empathetic, especially to a modern day audience, but Skarsgård brings him to life while showing the complexity of the character. He is serious, often brooding in London, but the jungle brings out a softer, happier side to him, creating a solid character arc. The machismo side of his character goes a little far at times, but overall it’s entertaining to see him knock around the bad guys.
Jackson’s character is perhaps the best part of the whole movie, providing both a deep emotional connection to the plot, but also a lot of light and fun humor. Jackson and Skarsgård’s chemistry proves solid. Their pairing is similar to Legolas and Gimli in The Lord of the Rings with Jackson yelling out funny jokes but struggling to keep up with the more physically fit Tarzan. It’s easy to watch them banter back and forth and enjoy their budding friendship. However, on the other hand, the sub-plots with Jane and Leon Rom’s character does not work.
Waltz tries his best to be an intimidating villain, but his shtick has grown old and he’s quickly nearing typecast territory. The newcomer Robie is desperately trying to find her voice, but never finds a charm or consistency to make Jane’s character compelling.
Despite the strong sense of story and character, The Legend of Tarzan falters with the menagerie of CGI jungle animals and vine swinging sequences. The special effects have their moments, but most of the time doesn’t measure up to the far superior The Jungle Book movie earlier this year. However, the focus on character and story helps anchor the movie, making it a little easier to swallow the more noticeable digital effects. I recommend avoiding 3D — the cinematography creates enough of a fulfilling experience.
There is a lot to like about The Legend of Tarzan. Skarsgård is a great lead hero to rally behind, Jackson provides plenty of good comic relief, and Yates does a great job balancing the darker tone of the film with some light humor and fun action. If you’re looking for a solid action-adventure with high quality visuals and a strong focus on character and plot, then swing into the theater to see The Legend of Tarzan this weekend.
Images courtesy of: Warner Bros.