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The Legend of Tarzan is a sequel. When it begins, the film assumes the audience knows the basics of the classic tale (although a series of brief summative flashbacks also serve as a reminders)—Tarzan was an affluent infant after his family survived a shipwreck, only to succumb to the dangers of the jungle shortly after his birth. Raised by apes to speak the language of the wild, Tarzan grew into a man, met Jane, fell in love, and became both myth and legend in the process.
Now, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) has reacquired his birth name of John Clayton, married Jane, and is attempting to live a normal life in London. Clayton is acutely aware his reputable alter ego. At his choice, he politely dismisses the character as a part of his past, or playfully indulges it to the squeals of children. Clayton believes London is now his home and so it is with great reluctance that he agrees to accompany the mysterious American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who insists there is a military takeover happening in the Congo (Tarzan’s former homestead) that may be endangering his old friends. At Jane’s behest to visit their former home, the Claytons accept the offer but soon after arriving find themselves embroiled in a plot to exploit the country’s riches through force.
What works in The Legend of Tarzan is the creativity of the plot, and the performances. The notion of making The Legend of Tarzan a true sequel, building upon well-worn territory is both wise and intriguing. In this iteration, we see something fresh with the familiar character—Clayton does not struggle with becoming a civilized man, nor he is seen an outsider among city-dwellers. This Tarzan retains all of his physical prowess and instincts, but has the ability to use them at will, making him less mysterious, but more fun and engaging than previous versions.
Skarsgard embodies Tarzan well with quiet, calculating resolve, fearlessness, and overall presence. His calm warmth towards all creatures is palpable, and it for this reason that you believe Jane (Margot Robbie) loves him as they share this common bond. Robbie also fares well given the way Jane is written—a highly intelligent, empowered woman. The writers are clearly aware of how this character is typically portrayed including the following dialogue between the villainous Leon Rom (Christophe Waltz) and Jane as he commands: “I need you to scream” to which she dryly replies, “like a damsel?”
While The Legend of Tarzan is smartly written, the visuals and overreaching plot muddy the final product. There was likely a large debate of well Tarzan would fare with modern day audiences, which may have resulted in budget cuts or reductions. Whatever the reason, the computer-generated imagery is cheap and jarring. The majority of jungle animals are poorly-drawn, and the action sequences either reek of unblended green screening or clearly animated humans. In a rare juxtaposition, the quiet thoughtful moments of interaction between characters outshine the action and adventure in this would-be blockbuster.
Furthermore, the plot of The Legend of Tarzan tries to aggrandize the stakes a bit too much during the third act and subsequent resolution. Waltz plays a fine, if not safe and caricaturized, villain, but when sphere of influences extends beyond a personal story involving Tarzan, Jane, and an old foe, to the fate of the entire country, some eye-rolling may occur. It perhaps would have been wiser to keep the whole affair a bit more intimate, and avoid some classic tropes given that The Legend of Tarzan tries, and succeeds, in presenting a story far more grounded during the first half of the film.
The Legend of Tarzan presents a refreshing take on an iconic character and boasts a solid script, but fails to stick the landing due to distracting CGI and being too ambitious with the stakes.
Final Grade: C+
Photos Courtesy of Dark Horse Entertainment