I’m not exactly how sure how much I like David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan, but I do — in a number of ways — admire either what it is or what it wants to be. This is, after all, a Tarzan movie. They’ve been making Tarzan movies for a century now, and you know, more or less, what to expect. Director Yates does not shy away from the more far-fetched — at least in 2016 — aspects of Tarzan’s character. He’s still a feral child raised by gorillas in the jungles of Africa, and he still swings on vines and can “communicate” with animals. Working from a screenplay by Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent) and — of all people — Black Snake Moan (2006) director Craig Brewer, Yates takes a more postmodern approach, showing a Tarzan already living in England as a reluctant celebrity.
While our Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) speaks perfect English, the whole “Me Tarzan, you Jane” thing is part of the cultural consciousness of the film’s characters, while the iconic Tarzan yell is commented on as being a bit disappointing in person according to the film’s villain, Rom (Christoph Waltz). (The “legend” in The Legend of Tarzan is the key here.) Yates, however, handles all of this deftly, creating a movie about a pretty uncomplicated character and attempting to add nuance and fill in the backstory. All of Tarzan’s origin is told through flashbacks, a welcome relief from the linear approach we normally get from comic book movies. At the same time, there are some heavy ideas at play here — thankfully handled with a lack of heavy-handedness — touching on colonialism and even American slavery but without feeling preachy. Even Tarzan’s outdated “white savior” motif feels honest.
The plot itself is straightforward. At the behest of American ambassador George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), Tarzan and Jane (an awkward Margot Robbie) return to Africa to investigate the possible enslaving of the natives by Belgium’s King Leopold. Jane is kidnapped by Leopold’s lackey, Rom, and Tarzan tries to track her down. That’s it, pretty much. The film comes with all the usual Tarzan trappings — doing absurd things like fighting gorillas and not being dismembered — but Yates tries to gussy this all up. The film is shot in very dull, gray hues with lots of wide-angle lens shots and close-ups, looking a bit like Terrence Malick’s later work but with, you know, angry hippos. Skarsgard is fine as this noble warrior, but the goofier aspects of the film do him little good. This is, after all, a movie where the villain (and maybe even organized religion, if you want to get really deep about it) is thwarted by the power of Tarzan’s neck muscles. It all fits within the tradition of Tarzan, though it clashes with Yates’ more high-minded aesthetics. But, if you’re stuck with seeing summer blockbusters, the weird, idiosyncratic ones are always worth a look. Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue.