There have been a lot of films about Tarzan and his adventures in the jungle, dating all the way back to the 1910s. We’ve always been fascinated with stories of humans in a simpler, more instinctual setting (see “The Jungle Book” as an example), and our relationship to gorillas, apes and other animals works as a study of the human psyche and adaptability. “The Legend of Tarzan” is unfortunately less about any of the aforementioned and more about the thrill, minus any of the depth. It’s not as bad as one would think, but it is disappointing.
In 1884, King Leopold of Belgium has taken over the Congo, plundering the African country for its vast riches. Dr. Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) suspects that the king, now overextended and in debt, is using slave workers to cut his costs. Enter typical bad guy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), sent on a mission by the king to strike an accord with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) that will allow for the mining of diamonds. There’s just one thing Rom has to do before Mbonga agrees: bring back to the Congo the chief’s mortal enemy, Tarzan.
Easier said than done. Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), has reclaimed his heritage and birth name – John Clayton III – and for the past eight years has been living a civilized life in England with his wife, Jane, (Margot Robbie). While John doesn’t fall for Rom’s trap to lure him back, Dr. Williams puts forth a more convincing argument – to investigate what’s happening with King Leopold and his unjust mining expeditions. And so ensues the adventure that will find Tarzan returning to his original home to seek justice.
The film tries to manage so much that it mishandles most of the story lines, culminating in underdeveloped plots and characters. Flashing back to Tarzan’s time with the gorillas doesn’t have much effect. Director David Yates attempts to bring Tarzan into the 21st century, setting him up to be a hero who confronts real-world events. The story becomes less about Tarzan and his struggles to find a place in society after his upbringing in the jungle, which would have been far more interesting to watch. Instead, it becomes the usual hero/villain story and one that’s underwhelming at best.
Christoph Waltz’s character is frankly a bit on the dull side. Waltz can sell anything, but over time his characters, all of which are villainous to some capacity, have begun to blend together. The film makes a show of painting him as a dangerous man, but in order to retain a PG-13 rating, he’s never shown to be lethal. (Surely his obsession with Jane could have crossed into more disturbing territory.)
Although I love Samuel L. Jackson on any given day, his role here seems misplaced, and for a while, it’s as if Yates wanted to turn “The Legend of Tarzan” into a duo adventure, with Jackson working as comic relief and Skarsgård being the serious one who doesn’t seem as into the partnership. Robbie spends three-fourths of the movie being a damsel in distress. The film would have fared better if it had allowed Robbie and Skarsgård to appropriately partner up for the jungle adventure.
The adventure aspect of the film is fun, with the jungle action sequences full of exhilarating moments. The darker tone to the film is meant to portray the seriousness of the plot, asking us to take the film more seriously than is called for. Ultimately, “The Legend of Tarzan” is adventurous and has some moments of intensity, but it simply tries to be too much at once. Tarzan as a savior doesn’t really work in the way that Yates probably envisioned and the combination of villainous politics and jungle adventure strikes a strange chord. In trying to make Tarzan more of a hero, it took away from all of the more humanistic struggles the film could have explored instead.
Ultimately, "The Legend of Tarzan" is adventurous and has some moments of intensity, but it simply tries to be too much at once. Tarzan as a savior doesn't really work in the way that Yates probably envisioned and the combination of villainous politics and jungle adventure strikes a strange chord.