Cinema’s latest foray into adapting the world of pulp characters to the big screen has arrived in the form of The Legend of Tarzan, and while the film looks like it’s on track to go down the same road of apathy and missed opportunity as the last Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation, John Carter, did four years ago, I felt I should throw my hat into the ring and say some words in support of this entertaining and fun adventure story most people probably aren’t going to see.
The Warner Bros. film, directed by David Yates (Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and starring Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood) and Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street) picks up the story after the Burroughs stories with our protagonist, John Clayton III, having settled down in London with his wife Jane Porter. He has put Africa behind him but his adventures have become legendary among Victorian society and wherever he goes he always carries the burden of having once been Tarzan.
Clayton’s ‘quiet life’ invariably gets interrupted when he is issued an invitation by the Belgian king Leopold II in the hopes that he would personally visit and report on the Belgian’s development of the Congo. He declines the invitation, not wanting to be reminded of his former life, but is persuaded to go by an American, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson). Williams convinces him that he needs to go and take Williams in his party as the Americans suspect the Belgians are, in fact, bankrupt and enslaving the Congolese population to maintain their hold on the region. He needs Clayton’s invitation to gain entry to the country and find his proof.
I like this setup. In fact, I’m glad that Yates and screenwriters, Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, opted to not directly adapt one of Burroughs’ novels or tell us yet another origin story. We all know who Tarzan is and it only requires the briefest of flashes or references to his past to get us all up to speed on the bits we’ve forgotten. Instead we are given new information and new characters to follow and learn about. A story that we won’t judge based on how close it was to the original book or one of the many film versions. You take this film and its story at face value and, despite what you may be seeing in the press or online, it’s a pretty decent story competently executed.
Yates is, by no means, one of my favourite filmmakers. He is, at best, a competent craftsman who is comfortable working on a project that has myriad working parts. He made the last handful of Harry Potter movies so he’s someone who knows how to do adventure and effects and not lose the actors in the mix. And that’s where this movie really succeeds. The cast is surprisingly good and every one of them brings exactly what they need to give their character life and make the audience invested in their plight.
Skarsgård brings a nice physicality to the role and a vulnerability to the character that it really needs. Although he is capable of amazing feats and is possessed of remarkable talents, Tarzan/Clayton III is a man trying to live in two worlds and, as a result, never quite fitting into either. Jane, as played by Margot Robbie, is hard to take your eyes off of. And that’s not a reference to Robbie’s considerable good looks as she imbues the character with such vitality and agency that when she’s not onscreen you actually miss her presence. You wonder what she is doing and when the filmmakers are going to return us to her side of the story. There’s a line in the trailer and the film where she declares she is no damsel to be rescued, but Robbie takes the declaration, which could have easily fallen into cliché, and follows through with the choices she makes. She is strong, in command (even when subdued), and the best version of Jane I have seen yet.
The supporting cast is equally well-rounded with the aforementioned Samuel Jackson playing a great sidekick character to Skarsgård’s Tarzan. I actually feel like Jackson was cast in this role, not because they needed a sassy Sam Jackson type in the part, but because he was actually the best actor for the role. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Zero Theorem) could chew up the screen with his portrayal of the villainous Léon Rom but chooses not to. This gives Rom an air of confidence and menace that he would otherwise lack and diminish the threat he poses to Tarzan. He also has great chemistry with Robbie and seeing the two intellectually spar was one of the highlights of the film.
If I had any complaint about the movie it would be that some of the larger set pieces took me out of the story momentarily due to their reliance on CG effects, and the ending could have been a bit tighter, but overall The Legend of Tarzan is a really solid, enjoyable couple of hours of pulpy adventure. They make some interesting choices with character and story that I didn’t expect, didn’t lose themselves amidst the spectacle of the film, and made sure that it was a character-driven piece first and foremost.
I do feel that, amidst the various franchise films and shared universes currently in cinemas, The Legend of Tarzan is a movie that people will opt to catch on video if they bother to see it at all. I think that would be a shame because what we’re telling the studios is we want them to pump out another Transformers piece of garbage rather than take a chance on something a little bit different. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that we get a lot of action movies but they don’t make a lot of good adventure movies anymore. When they do, we don’t go to see them or support them, even if they’re well done affairs.
That’s a shame.
If I was rating this movie I would easily give it a 7 or 7.5 out of ten. Since I don’t normally use a numerical rating system I’ll just go out on a limb and say, ignore the haters. Find some time and go see the film in theatres while you still can. If you enjoy pulp heroes, adventure stories, or are just looking for a fun movie to lift you from your regular life for a couple of hours, you could do a lot worse.