The first films and TV shows that looked at the life and times of Tarzan had the King of the Jungle speaking broken English and lacking a lot of social skills. Over the years, the approach shifted to starting with Tarzan as the more civilized John Clayton III and then finding a way to get him out of his shirt and back into the jungle.
The latest look at the vine-swinging character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs takes that more civilized approach. Swedish hunk Alexander Skarsgård plays the title role with cinema’s current reigning beauty, Margot Robbie, as his spunky Jane. The pair are the best looking couple to hang with the animals in a beautiful jungle setting since Adam and Eve.
Clayton is lured back to the Congo to see the progress that has been made in the central African nation. The truth is, he’s being brought back to the jungle by the wicked Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a mercenary who wants to trade Tarzan for a chest full of diamonds.
There’s a complicated story about war chests, slavery and honor but it all comes down to Tarzan going home and having to turn to his animal buddies for help. As long as that core element is present, the production works whether Tarzan is dressed in a suit or loin cloth.
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The two strengths of “The Legend of Tarzan” are Skarsgård and Robbie. He definitely has the physical presence to make the character stand tall in the jungle. Couple that with his brooding stare and limited dialogue and the actor brings the role to life.
Match that with Robbie, whose Jane is spunky without being overbearing. This is a Jane who through intellect and actions could be just as interesting in her own movie.
The weakest casting is Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams (and yes, that makes him George of the Jungle). He’s an ambassador from the United States who pushes Clayton into the decision to go home so that he can tag along and see if the country is forcing the local population into slavery.
Jackson’s a good actor, but he has such a 21st Century quality to him that he come across more like a lost time traveler than a 19th Century champion. His comic relief is more of an annoyance than an accent on the story.
The screenplay by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer remains respectful to the Tarzan legend. They manage to update the story with all of the political issues while holding on to many of the tropes from previous jungle tales.
They manage to figure out a way to add the line “Me Tarzan you Jane,” without it sounding like a comedy bit. And the memorable Tarzan yell has been altered slightly (but the writers add a line of commentary to acknowledge the change).
Director David Yates, best known for his guiding of four “Harry Potter” films, delivers all these elements against a backdrop that is stunning. From mist filled jungles to rolling fields of grass, Tarzan’s world is shown in amazing scope.
He’s not quite as adept with the computer generated creatures, even to the point of some of them changing their size scale in a scene. It’s not a failing – more of a stumble in what is generally a solid take on a jungle story that has been presented on big and small screens since 1918.
“The Legend of Tarzan” is not the king of jungle movies, but it is presented with such royal reverence that some people will go ape over it.
The Legend of Tarzan
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou
Director: David Yates
Rating: PH-13 (violence, action scenes)
Opens: Friday, July 1