“The Legend of Tarzan” evokes no film more strongly than 1998’s “The Mask of Zorro.” Both movies reinvent classic heroes for a new generation of moviegoers, involve grand villainous conspiracies to plunder the treasures of an oppressed people, and are laden with spiffy special effects.
Refreshingly, this isn’t an origin story.: “The Legend of Tarzan” picks up several years after Tarzan’s departure from the jungle, his marriage to Jane, and his assumption of his Earl of Greystoke title (scenes from Tarzan’s childhood among the apes are depicted in flashbacks). This movie is (very loosely) situated within real-world history: Tarzan’s nemesis here is Belgian colonialist Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, who sadly doesn’t have enough scenery to chew), who plans to harvest diamonds and slaves from the Congo in an effort to pay off King Leopold’s extensive debts. Once the peril at hand becomes clear, Tarzan and Jane promptly trade their life of luxury and parliamentary squabbles for the African jungle.
As one might expect given the juxtaposition of past and present narratives, “Tarzan” suffers from a bit too much worldbuilding. I’m tempted to blame this on the recent, inexplicable, and frustrating Hollywood philosophy that movies that get large budgets must be designed to facilitate sequels (see, for example, “The Lone Ranger” and “John Carter” – “Pacific Rim” was a rare exception). Here, the flashbacks and exposition dumps are so frequent that they start to interfere with the cohesiveness of the narrative and result in uneven pacing.
That said, the film’s production values are stellar, from music to scenery. The CGI animals look great (if not quite as polished as the creatures of “The Jungle Book”) and the obligatory vine-swinging sequences are suitably visceral. “Tarzan” does suffer from a bit of Christopher Nolan envy – Tarzan repeatedly attacks silently from the foliage, picking his enemies off one by one, in sequences that feel heavily influenced by the “Dark Knight” trilogy – but director David Yates mostly exorcises these impulses by the film’s concussive conclusion.
Acting-wise, Alexander Skarsgard is a worthy lead who certainly looks the part, and Margot Robbie is a satisfyingly spunky Jane (whose character demonstrates, gratifyingly, that it’s possible to write strong female characters in historical-ish movies without sounding anachronistic). It bears mention that Samuel L. Jackson also turns up as an American sidekick for Tarzan, but his character adds literally nothing to the story and could’ve easily been written out.
At the end of the day, “The Legend of Tarzan” is almost a strong movie – 80-85% of the pieces are there. But despite its pulp-fiction origins, “Tarzan” lacks much real strangeness or mystery. Here, there aren’t any lost cities of gold populated by forgotten peoples: there are just some diamond mines a European monarch wants to control. That might be historical, but it’s not really Tarzan-esque – and, accordingly, the film doesn’t end up feeling particularly iconic.
As Saturday-afternoon entertainment, however, one could do much worse.
A high-quality, but not particularly memorable, reinterpretation of the beloved hero.
Normalized Score: 3.4