Tarzan is a man whose life has been one of deep tragedy and intense love in equal measures. Raised in the Congo by apes after the death of his parents, he adapted and became one with not just the animals that brought him up, but also with the jungle itself. His life in the wilderness it seemed was set, until he met and fell in love with the beautiful Jane.
It might sound familiar – because it is – but it’s not the traditional Tarzan story (i.e. most of the good stuff) that we’re told in actual fact. And it’s not the fish out the water, George of the Jungle-esque approach either. Instead The Legend of Tarzan takes the tale that most everyone knows, pushes it into the background, and gives us a version nearly ten years removed from the events which define Tarzan most clearly in popular culture. The story of the animalistic man tamed by the love of a woman is still seen through a series of effective flashbacks, but predominantly the film is more intent on telling us that whilst you can take the man out of the jungle, you can’t take the jungle out of the man.
Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) is a changed man. Having left the African jungles he once called home for a new start in England, he’s become quite the refined aristocrat. But one who will have to tap into his primal side once more if he’s to save his beloved Jane (Margot Robbie) after she’s kidnapped by Captain Léon Rom, played by Christoph Waltz, doing what Christoph Waltz does best: intimidating everyone in sight. Whilst Tarzan and Jane were pretty well off living in a preposterously lovely stately home in England, stories of unrest and slavery in their home country, delivered by American war veteran George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), persuade the pair to head back to the Congo, and into the trap set by Captain Rom to capture and exchange Tarzan for the rare diamonds his leader needs to keep his government afloat.
Which would have all been fine with a decent script, yet, instead it’s a rather clunky extension of the Tarzan fable on multiple fronts. For example: how about how Tarzan – a man raised by apes – for some reason has an English accent? I’m no linguist, but I’m relatively sure that spending a couple of months in the formative stages of your life with British parents wouldn’t automatically transform you into a right royal English gent. Or, how about how George Washington Williams convinces Tarzan to return to Africa partially on the basis that he knows the local languages, when he needn’t have worried, as basically everyone speaks English anyway? The film’s peppered with curiosities such as these, and whilst they’re by no means deal breakers, they are at the least distracting.
Even more distracting however is Mark Day’s oft disjointed editing, which creates more confusion than clarity at times. Likewise, the CGI is hit and miss, with the incredibly realised dense jungles regularly undercut by its inhabitants, predominantly the apes which are inconsistent in their quality, especially when compared to those of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). Henry Braham’s cinematography fares better though, with some gorgeous contrasting between the vibrancy of the jungle and Tarzan’s colder English home, along with a smattering of exhilarating, sweeping shots following the film’s hero as he swings through the jungle’s branches.
It’s in these moments, with Skarsgård in full on, traditional, unbridled, hair down Tarzan mode that the film best finds its footing, but director David Yates doesn’t manage to transfer nearly enough of the magic that he rustled up for the Harry Potter series to his latest endeavour. It’s as though he was not quite set on whether he wanted it to be a lighthearted throwaway, or something just that bit smarter. There are hefty themes and topics touched upon – slavery, most centrally – yet still it feels padded with fluff, unable to show any real edge.
The performances on the whole, and the chemistry between Skarsgård’s Tarzan and Margot Robbie’s charming Jane carry The Legend of Tarzan over the line, but I can’t help but wish it had of gone swinging over it at full pelt instead.
Rating (out of 5):