I admit it, I have been a huge Tarzan fan since I was a wide-eyed kid, watching Johnny Weismuller swing across the big screen. I grew up with Ron Ely playing Tarzan on TV. I’ve seen almost every theatrical remake, including the 1981 Bo Derek debacle, Tarzan the Ape Man. (It’s okay, you’re allowed to facepalm that one.) However, watching the trailers for the new Legend of Tarzan, I found myself asking, can you actually make a Tarzan film that isn’t all kinds of politically incorrect in 2016? In our racially sensitive times, do we need yet another Mighty Whitey film? In our feminist culture, do we need a Jane-damsel-in-distress-Porter? I admit it: the most I expected was 110 minutes of superfine Alexander Skarsgård lady-gazing.
What a surprise I got!
The writers, Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, manage to give the viewers the relevant, spectacular action-adventure that us lifelong Tarzan fans have been waiting for. They smartly set the action down smack in the middle of actual historical events and have Lord John Clayton III (Tarzan) be not the cause of the movie’s story, but one of the casualties of it.
It’s been ten years since Lord Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) returned from Africa, with the lovely and feisty Jane Porter as his wife. He’s being petitioned by the Belgian King Leopold to return to the Congo to check out all his good works and put the Tarzan the Ape Man seal of approval on them. The prime minister wants him to go because King Leopold has gone broke conquering the Congo and owes just about every crowned head of Europe vaults of money, including Queen Victoria. Lord Clayton will have none of that penny dreadful nonsense dredged up again, but is convinced to go by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who indeed was a real-life American journalist. Williams is sure King Leopold is up to no good, and Lord Clayton is his ticket into the Congo to investigate.
Meanwhile our arch-villain, Leon Rom, has been up to no good, manipulating an African tribe to lead him to the legendary diamonds of Opar (a lovely aside to the fifth novel of the Tarzan series, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar). Rom (Christoph Waltz) is a Machiavellian self-serving slime bag (also an actual historical figure, no idea how genuinely slimy) who makes Littlefinger of Game of Thrones look like an honest ray of sunshine.
No sooner do our heroes – including Jane, who was not invited but has a will stronger than any wild man of the jungle – set foot on African soil that all hell breaks loose and the breathtaking adventure begins. This is also begins a Tarzan epic that reminds us we are all interconnected, with all peoples and all creatures, but also a Tarzan tale of a man who is merely human and makes mistakes. The writers allow the African people to save themselves, and each other, which is great in more ways than one, since Tarzan’s main motive is to rescue Jane, not be Africa’s loin-clothed superhero.
Alexander Skarsgård nails John Clayton/Tarzan. It’s his face I will see whenever I think of Tarzan now. Samuel L. Jackson is, well, Samuel L. Jackson. and he manages to nearly steal every scene he’s in. Margot Robbie is a fabulous Jane, who although does spend most of the entire movie captive, is never in distress. The action sequences are so good that I for once didn’t care how much of it was CGI because it looked real, period. The blend of flashback to Tarzan’s origin story into the present sequence of events is seamless. To say much more would be heading into spoiler territory, and this is a movie that deserves to be seen on the large screen.
Kudos to being appealing to a wide-eyed 7-year-old kid at heart, a long time fan of the novels (my roommate, who declared it the “best Tarzan movie ever), and my personal modern social conscience, my daughter. We loved it. (And P.S. We Want More!)