Entire family: No
2016, 110 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
The Legend of Tarzan adds a nice infusion of originality and energy into an old, familiar story.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ape man, Tarzan, has been featured in some 200 films since Elmo Lincoln first donned the loincloth in 1918, so any filmmaker would be crazy to think that he or she could come up with anything new. Yet that’s exactly what writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer and director David Yates have done. They’ve thrown off the loincloth, abandoned the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” talk, and turned the inarticulate noble savage into an action hero who prefers to be called John Chapman.
Calm down, purists! We still get the story of Tarzan embedded in flashbacks that are seamlessly and artfully inserted into a homecoming narrative. The premise is this: Tarzan and Jane have been living in London long enough for him to have lost all traces of his wild African upbringing. Opening story tiles tell us that King Leopold II has nearly gone bankrupt trying to mine the riches of his portion of the Congo Basin claimed by Belgium, and that he needs to finance more infrastructure projects with mythic diamonds rumored to be the property of an isolated tribe. To secure those diamonds and turn his Congo venture around, the King has entrusted his envoy Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz, who plays the role a lot like Kurz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).
Waltz is a wonderful villain who discovers that the tribe will give him the diamonds only if he will deliver Tarzan—who killed the chief’s son many years ago. So in what amounts to an elaborate trap, he sends Tarzan and Jane an invitation on behalf of King Leopold asking them to revisit Boma and give him a report on the Congo. Complicating matters is that an American envoy named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) tells Tarzan/Chapman that he wants to accompany him to investigate what he suspects might be the enslavement of an entire population by the Belgians. It’s a risky, politicized overhaul of a time-honored tale, but our family thought the changes made an almost too-familiar narrative more fun and interesting to watch.
Parents, be warned: enslavement and slaughter aren’t exactly topics for the timid, and The Legend of Tarzan is every bit a PG-13 movie. Inexplicably, Jackson’s character provides some comic relief in an otherwise serious film, but that’s about the only glaring inconsistency. As for other negatives, three of four family members thought the CGI apes were just fine, but our teenage son said he thought they took a furry backseat to the ones from the more recent Planet of the Apes creatures—especially the eyes, which he thought were more lizard-like. It’s amazing, though, to see what filmmakers can do with animals completely created on the computer, and a scene in which Tarzan and his party leap from a cliff into the jungle canopy and then start running on a labyrinth of limbs will have Tarzan fans thinking of Disney’s animated feature. It’s a fun homage/allusion, and the visuals in this film are dramatically detailed, especially in 1080p HD.
The Legend of Tarzan also surprises with the level of acting, which is a cut above what viewers usually see in an action movie. Alexander Skarsgaard is totally believable as Tarzan, and Margot Robbie manages to portray Jane as both warm and strong—someone that the villainous Rom will learn is as tough to tangle with as her husband. The three main performers are nothing short of charismatic, and that elevates the film considerably.
There are sad moments in The Legend of Tarzan and tough scenes to watch, if you have any sensitivity whatsoever, but overall it’s an adventure well worth taking.
Language: Just minor swearwords, and not all that many
Sex: Nothing much here; just kissing and cuddling
Violence: Soldiers fight tribal people, apes and crocs attack people, and people are shot, strangled, and held under water;
Adult situations: Hippos pose a threat in one frightening scene, and there are other intense scenes as well; no smoking, but there is a dinner scene where wine is served
Takeaway: Just when you thought you’d seen it all, along comes a variation that’s as convincing as it is original