Review: The Legend of Tarzan – Jungle heroics and alternative histories

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The Legend of TarzanThere hasn’t been a live-action Tarzan film in almost two-decades, quite a drought for a franchise that has produced over fifty films in the past century. But regardless of the abundance of historic movies featuring the Lord of the Jungle, many fans have been waiting their entire lives to see a true, realistic representation of the Ape Man’s adventures on the big screen; and with The Legend of Tarzan that wait is finally over.

If you ever read the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, then you’ve had the look and feel of the Ape Man’s world and his exploits etched into your mind’s eye, as if with a badass and rather large hunting knife. Now you get to see the hero swing through the jungle and interact with the great apes in what is probably the most life-like way imaginable – and that alone is worth the price of admission into this wonderful movie.

Written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, and directed by David Yates (of mostly Harry Potter film fame), The Legend of Tarzan is the almost perfect trifecta of a romance movie, a heroic adventure film, and a historical period drama; although the ‘history’ is certainly skewed for entertainment purposes.

Lord Greystoke (AKA John Clayton III, AKA Tarzan – as played by Alexander Skarsgard) has successfully adapted to civilization, but reluctantly returns to Africa with his high-spirited and not-so-hesitant wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), and real-life American Civil War hero, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), in order to investigate the evil doings of Belgian’s King Leopold and his henchman, Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who is in cahoots with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), whom has an old score to settle with the Ape Man.

The film is set, as it should be, in the latter 1800s, and it mixes real history and political intrigue with the fictional hero’s century-old stories, which are in turn mashed-up together into one cohesive narrative. Will it help your enjoyment of the film if you have knowledge of both the Burroughs’ fiction and the historical facts? Sure, but it’s absolutely not necessary.

The Legend of Tarzan is woven with flashbacks of Tarzan’s ape-centric origin and his first interactions with Jane. Like with each Tarzan film before, artistic license has been taken with the source material that, in this case, appears to come from the first two Tarzan books. But fans will recognize bits of material from throughout the Ape Man mythos.

The Legend of TarzanIf you are a purist, you may be concerned with some missing pieces in this tweaked version of the story (the absence of the hero’s legendary knife comes immediately to mind), but if you are a die-hard fan I think your excitement for this film will temper any nerdy technical complaints.

Skarsgard’s Tarzan is good natured and humble while being stoic and physically imposing, with an animalistic glare powerful enough to make most men cower. Fans of the books will immediately recognize this hero as the godlike athlete that was conceived by Burroughs. That said, the actor also convincingly provides the Greystoke persona with a timidity one might see in a scared, but still dangerous beast wandering loose in the streets of nineteenth century London.

Part of the fun, and hence the movie’s title, is that Lord Greystoke is not necessarily thrilled with the narrative (or legend) that has been created surrounding his life among the apes. He doesn’t seek attention, but still, uncomfortably, finds himself in the spotlight, in both England and in his former African home.

The Legend of Tarzan’s Jane, as embodied by Margot Robbie, is the perfect companion to the Ape Man. As Skarsgard does with Tarzan, Robbie brings the literary character to bold and brilliant life. She’s strong, independent and dangerous when cornered – not to mention classy and breathtakingly beautiful.

Adding Samuel L. Jackson to the cast as George Washington Williams is a stroke of genius. Not only does he bring well deserved attention to the life of a real world hero, he also smooths out what might have been some awkward moments for modern moviegoers. That is, if Sam Jackson, one of the coolest characters on or off screen, is buying that Tarzan can communicate with animals and perform all the amazing physical feats that he does, then you as an audience member are likely to believe it as well.

Christoph Waltz is fantastically devious as Leon Rom, another real-life character blended into this fictional tale. Rom was one of the leaders involved in the Leopold atrocities against the indigenous people of the Congo Free State. And from what I’ve read about the real man/monster, the character in this film is Rom-lite (but then it is just a PG-13 movie.)

The Legend of TarzanThere are bound to be some political correctness police out there who will complain about the “white savior” aspects of this film, but even the harshest cynic will have to agree that this film does an even handed job of depicting the evils of European colonialism in the Victorian era, and even with the movie’s alternative take on history it brings attention to the real horrors that Belgium’s King Leopold brought to the African continent under the false guise of humanitarian philanthropy.

I am thrilled with this film, but I have to mention one awkward section in the third act when it seemed to me that the editor(s) might have been asleep at the wheel. Between a Rom battle with the great apes and the confrontation with Chief Mbonga at the entrance of Opar (yes, Burroughs fans, Opar plays a part in this story) there is not much transition happening here outside of Tarzan running quickly from one place to the other – a clunky moment to be sure, but a minor complaint in the big picture.

There are some huge and ultra-exciting action sequences in this movie, but what I loved most were its more subtle touches, some that might even go unnoticed by some moviegoers, like an almost imperceptible bull-ape grunt that Lord Greystoke makes when he is alone after committing to the mission with Williams. So-damn-perfect!

I’ve prophesied for some time that The Legend of Tarzan would be the date movie of this summer, and having now seen the movie I boldly stand by that prediction. Skarsgard and Robbie as Tarzan and Jane are characters you will either want to be or to be with (no matter what your sexual orientation.) This film has everything you could possibly want for a great time at the movies. Grade: 9/10

Photos © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.


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About the author

Bob Leeper

Bob Leeper is the co-owner and manager of "Arizona’s Pop Culture and Alternative Art Network," Evermore Nevermore. He is the co-creator of the pop culture events Steampunk Street and ENCREDICON, and is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society. He also curates the Facebook fan site The Arizona Cave – AZ Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is one of the few brave and bold fans of Jar Jar Binks.

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  • Thank you for this excellent review. I am really looking forward to see this movie (despite the negative critics). I was puzzled by the mixed and negative ratings, because it appears in some of them that the authors had some preconceived notions which affected their experience. It certainly has an old school, adventure/romance movie vibe and it seems as a fresh and original take on Tarzan.

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