There have been many adaptations of Tarzan made since the character’s creation in 1912, spanning books, comics and film. Disney’s Tarzan in 1999 may probably be one of the most well known due to the universal appeal and wide spread nature of Disney films. The Legend of Tarzan is the most recent story about the jungle raised orphan and tells a story about his return to his homeland rather than just being an origin story like so many before it.
The movie’s plot weaves in and out of actual events that happened during the time the movie takes place in. Belgium King Leopold II did indeed own the Congo, and it is here in this movie that he is broke and desperate to make money off the land. At the start of the film we see his right hand man, Leon Rom, attempting to broker a deal for diamonds with a man from Tarzan’s past.
Meanwhile, in England, Tarzan has been living under his real name; John Clayton. Conspiring political events have pressured John to revisit his homeland to inspect the good that has been done to the Congo, under the care of Belgium King Leopold II. John initially passes on the offer as the invite doesn’t interest him. He is then convinced to return upon suspicion that something else is happening in the Congo. John returns to his homeland to investigate what is going on and discovers along the way that a far more devious plot is planned against him.
Alexander Skarsgård is cast here as the lead, Tarzan. I found his performance lacking and didn’t have the presence needed to carry the movie. There are some scenes he is quite good in, but they are too few to really help his performance as a whole. Margot Robbie, whom I am only familiar with via the Suicide Squad trailers, is fairly ok here, but with most of her scenes being either as a hostage or alongside a Tarzan that she has zero chemistry with, she does ok with what she has.
Christoph Waltz is the villain of the story, and he is here in typical Christoph Waltz style. His character, Leon Rom, came across as more of an Indiana Jones antagonist than anything that fit the world of this movie. He has an agenda here regarding Tarzan and it does fit within the scope of the movie quite well. I enjoyed his scenes with Jane and the conclusion with Tarzan was very satisfying.
I really enjoyed Samuel L. Jackson’s character; George Washington Williams. He brought much needed humor to the role and also acted as our eyes into the life that Tarzan and Jane had before their life in England. The latter half of the film really allows each of the characters to have some of their best moments, and Jackson here is easily the most entertaining of them.
I found it rather interesting that both Waltz and Jackson’s characters are based upon real life people that were known to have been in the Congo at the time the movie takes place. This is actually the first moment that this historic man has been captured in celluloid. Jackson had this to say about playing the real life man within the world of Tarzan:
“Tarzan has historic value in terms of exposing what King Leopold actually did to the Congo and the first real holocaust in African history transpired because of him. I was able to portray a real life character who actually went to the Congo and exposed King Leopold.”
Leon Rom, on the other hand, was not a hero at all. He was a very violent Belgian soldier whom was known for keeping the heads of those he killed in his flower bed. He eventually became the district commissioner of Matadi in the Congo Free State, and later head of the Force Publique Army. The Force Publique was also known to kill those who would commit even minor offenses.
Some of the other characters in the movie are mostly a split between CG animals and the tribes people from Tarzan and Jane’s past. The gorilla’s look fantastic as did the few other animals that you see throughout the film. Some animals work better than others due to the visual interactions they have with the real actors. Djimon Hounsou as Chief Mbonga was also another character I enjoyed here but felt he was vastly underused. I enjoyed the emotional connection he has to Tarzan and felt it worked well.
The interactions with the CG elements in the film is sort of hit and miss. Some sections, like Tarzan and his gorilla brother in the rain after an ambush of soldiers with guns, looks amazing, but scenes where Tarzan fights any CG creature just isn’t as impressive. There are moments when Tarzan is making contact with his hands on a variety of animals and there is a shadowed hazing that stands out around his fingers.
It wouldn’t be a Tarzan movie without swinging from vine to vine and while there isn’t a lot of it, what is here is pretty great. I did find that some vines were extremely exaggerated, especially during the scene where they attempt to get onto the train.
I did find the film a bit grainy in some sections, like I was watching a slightly older film back on the big screen. When Tarzan reunites with a parade of elephants, the quality of the film just seems to suffer for some reason despite viewing the film in AVX 3D. I also noticed that the director kept a great amount of his detail in the foreground and kept the backgrounds somewhat blurry. I am not sure if this was a stylized choice, or a way to hide the fact so much CG was used to create the backgrounds. Other than some grainy shots and some blurry backgrounds, the rest of the film is beautifully shot and some locations are incredibly impressive.
There are certain aspects to the movie that work well and are enjoyable, but as a whole, the movie is just barely capable. The final act of the movie is easily the most entertaining part, especially after a slow burn in the first half. There are several flashbacks in the movie showing us when this Tarzan met Jane, and how he as a baby, was discovered by the gorilla’s. Thankfully, these scenes don’t overstay their welcome and naturally fit within the film. Only a few of the characters really stand out, and sadly, it’s not the main leads. As enjoyable as some of this movie can be, it just doesn’t feel epic or even exciting, and more of a simple story than anything resembling a legend.