Alexander Skarsgard swings through the trees, shirtless with rippling abs in the latest take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic Tarzan story. With Harry Potter veteran David Yates at the helm, The Legend of Tarzan is a worthy addition to the very long list of Tarzan adaptations, and the magnificently muscular Skarsgard’s one of the better actors to ever take on the role of the Lord of the Jungle. We may not have necessarily needed a new Tarzan film, but what Warner Bros Pictures and director Yates have done with the story doesn’t feel recycled and done to death.
The story begins with John Clayton III, fifth Earl of Greystoke, and a member of the House of Lords living in Greystoke Manor and happily married to Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). He’s settled into a life of wealth and fame (everyone knows his story of being raised by apes), but this new normalcy is disrupted when he’s asked to return to the Congo by Belgium’s King Leopold II for diplomatic reasons. Initially John says no, however American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) convinces him that his presence is necessary as there are rumors the natives are being exploited and enslaved in order to clear the country for colonization.
John and Jane, who won’t take no for an answer and demands to go along to visit her old friends, make the trip in the company of George Washington Williams but avoid dealing with King Leopold’s envoy Leon Rom (played by the go-to actor for film villain’s Christoph Waltz) by heading straight to the village where Jane’s father taught school and where she grew up. The newly arrived John, Jane, and George quickly confirm Leon Rom and King Leopold’s despicable plans for the Congo. Unfortunately, Leon Rom’s plans for Tarzan also involve trading him to his enemy, Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), a tribal leader whose hatred for Tarzan runs deep. Leon’s set up a deal to hand over Tarzan in exchange for diamonds which will fund the troops and supplies needed to basically wipeout life in the region as the natives know it, enslaving the natives and destroying their villages. But once Jane’s taken hostage, Leon quickly learns first-hand the deep connection Tarzan has to the animals and people of the Congo, and the intense love he has for Jane.
This Tarzan’s a wild adventure with breathtaking cinematography and impressive CG animals. (No real animals were used in the film.) The blending of the CG animals into shots with Skarsgard is fairly seamless, and it’s difficult to pick out what was shot on a soundstage from what was actually shot in Gabon, Africa.
The Legend of Tarzan features a strong performance by a bulked-up Skarsgard who says little but conveys much as a man who is out of place in high society and at home among the creatures of the forest. Skarsgard, best known for playing sexy Viking vampire Eric Northman in HBO’s True Blood, adds a playful touch to the role when appropriate while also conveying the character’s love of his animal family and determination to keep them safe at all costs.
As Jane, Margot Robbie’s no damsel in distress. She’s fierce, independent, and capable of handling herself in dangerous situations. She is Jane; hear her roar. The sparks fairly fly off the screen when Skarsgard and Robbie share quieter, emotionally complex moments, and this Tarzan and Jane relationship is more of a match of equals than past incarnations of the characters.
The new movie also puts Tarzan on more of an equal ground with the Congo natives who respect him and treat him like a brother. They are fierce warriors in their own right who also know the trick to swinging from gigantic vines, and Tarzan doesn’t rescue or lead them so much as work side-by-side with men who’ve been his friends for years.
The Legend of Tarzan hits all the necessary notes with plenty of vine-swinging, ape action, and the iconic Tarzan yodel. The yodel is heard a couple of times in the film but always from afar, with Skarsgard never standing in the frame giving voice to the classic call. This actually makes the yodel more frightening and eerie, but was likely done as the yell itself was a combination of Skarsgard and other sources.
This 2016 Tarzan film will introduce the character to a new generation of moviegoers and if Warner Bros has its way and the box office justifies it, The Legend of Tarzan will probably launch a new franchise. Director Yates, working from a script by Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad, uses the tragic but true story of Belgium’s attempted genocide in the Congo as the setting for an epic story of love and loyalty. Tarzan may do the physically impossible, but it’s his connection to Jane, his animal family, and his friends in the Congo that drives the story and makes The Legend of Tarzan more than just a simple summer action film.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: July 1, 2016