You can take the man out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the man.
Everyone knows the story of John Clayton, the infant raised by apes to become Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) after his shipwrecked parents died. The story begins long after John has returned to England, residing in his the estate of his parents with the love of his life, Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). John’s quasi-retirement comes to an end when he receives an invitation from Belgian King Leopold to see his accomplishments in Africa; after initially refusing, an American named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) begs him to reconsider, explaining that the king is broke and his so-called accomplishments are likely due to enslavement of the Congo. With Jane refusing to stay behind, the three meet in Africa only to be attacked Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) in an attempt to fulfill a deadly contract.
The first act of The Legend of Tarzan isn’t particularly exciting, but it does set up important back story as well as establish the characters; once the ball gets rolling, the film never looks back. It’s of worthy note that the mandatory handling of John/Tarzan’s time in the jungle as a human child being raised among apes is done efficiently and mostly with selected flashbacks, keeping this from becoming an origin story and more like a return-to-form. Some of the film’s climatic elements may seem a bit farfetched, but it reveals how the King of the Jungle leverages his heritage to target those who’ve earned his ire.
A bit of controversy: “White man saves blacks from slavery.” First off, Edgar Rice Burroughs published the first Tarzan story on October, 1912 in All-Story Magazine, and to be clear, the Ape Man was a product of his era — it was racist as all hell by today’s standards. The Tarzan created by Burroughs would likely not have been moved by Williams (himself or his plight) to leave England at all, end of story. So, wherever this is coming from, someone should probably go back and read the source material for a real eye-opener.
Moving on to the actors themselves, Alexander Skarsgård makes you forget he was ever a vampire of “True Blood,” becoming the soft-spoken King of the Jungle whose actions speak far louder than words — not to mention achieving the expected physicality that the role and audiences demand (you’re welcome, ladies). Margot Robbie continues to impress as a Jane who refuses to become her captor’s victim and taking advantage of every opportunity she can. Sam Jackson does a convincing job of playing someone thirty years younger (unless you believe a man almost seventy years old could in any way keep up a thirty-something Tarzan), but Christoph Waltz is given very little to work with other than another generic big bad with delusions of grandeur; while the steady paychecks must be nice, he’s better than this.
In the end, The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t contribute too much that seems new to the character so much as it points in a new direction, re-establishing everyone where they need to be to provide further adventures and perhaps something more original. While it doesn’t feel specifically unique, it isn’t entirely forgetable, either, hinting at possibilities to come. If the film can find an audience, Skarsgård is a worthy successor to the actors who’ve portrayed the Ape Man, and every studio wants a new franchise these days. If not, at least this one grand adventure was had.
(a two and a half skull recommendation out of four)