How do you make a Tarzan movie in 2016? Over the character’s century of existence he’s been in everything from the original Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novels, to classic studio programmers, cheap boy’s adventures, stately period piece epics, gauzy romances, and even an animated Disney musical with songs by Phil Collins. (The last one might be my personal favorite.) The story of a 19th century child, born in the jungles of Africa to shipwrecked British blue bloods, tragically orphaned, raised by apes, and who grew into a muscular wild man swinging from vines, is an old-fashioned and familiar one. What can possibly be done to make this a story worth retelling? Director David Yates’ solution is to play it straight and take it seriously, tapping into the feelings of displacement Tarzan has while torn between two worlds. The Legend of Tarzan is therefore a rip-snorting jungle adventure, a mournful story of loss, and a sober-minded reflection on the evils of colonialism. The film doesn’t always get the combination of these elements exactly right, but its heart is in the right place, and it’s an often-enjoyable entertainment.
This is a movie that begins with Tarzan (Alexander Skarsagård) already a legend, having met and married Jane (Margot Robbie) and moved to England years before the story begins. Invited back to Africa by a Belgian mercenary with ulterior motives (Christoph Waltz) and persuaded by an American adventurer who needs help proving the colonists are up to no good (Samuel L. Jackson, as a character loosely based on a real man), Tarzan decides to return to his childhood home, reuniting with the apes who raised him and the natives who taught him to become a human. He finds it’s nice to be back, but soon the bad guys attack, and the adventure through the jungle starts. The film began in the thick of colonial African politics, with the scheming Belgian cutting a deal with a vengeful chief (Djimon Hounsou) to trade Tarzan for diamonds. The reasons why are simple. The European needs money to help a bankrupt king pay for his army’s impending takeover of the Congo; the chief wants revenge for some previous scrape. The setup is clear and the villains obvious. Tarzan is in danger, and his return has endangered his loved ones.
Screenwriters Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) supply an interesting narrative structure, a flashback origin story nestled inside a tale of domesticated Lord Greystoke feeling the pull of the wild. This is as much The Legend as it is Tarzan, his famous exploits the source of internal and external conflict, his present as much about how he’ll reconcile his past and his present as it is the action it inspires. Potential nostalgia for the old story is cut with the horror of its peril and the sadness of what’s become of this place as colonial powers encroach. This isn’t a light adventure about a boy scampering with animals. There are hints of a more traditional Tarzan in his upsetting and romantic past, while the present is a rescue mission to stop the looting invaders from enslaving the population and strip-mining the country’s resources. It’s a high-flying, vine-swinging matinee cliffhanger – with some corny lines and broad performances – in a heavier approach. The violence carries menace and weight, and the danger in stock B-movie scenarios is played for real impact.
Against this sturdy backdrop there’s an investment in the feelings of its leads. Skarsgård carries himself with strength and confidence in his physical abilities, and a hesitance in his interactions with other Europeans. Early scenes have him stiff in suits, coming to life when showing off his unusually strong hands, or when nimbly climbing a tree in his yard. It’s with the African people and places where he stretches out, more himself even when forced into an action plot. Then a key delight is watching the burgeoning buddy relationship with Jackson’s quipping, gun-slinging American (so fun and fully formed I wished he could ride into his own exciting adventure series), which brings some of the movie’s lightest capering moments while rarely taking away from the more contemplative tone. Elsewhere the filmmakers have tried to minimize potential elements of sexism and racism from the old setup, allowing Jane (Robbie is fine, even if the character isn’t quite as fully defined as her mate’s) some agency despite quickly becoming a damsel in distress, and giving the tribesmen some portion of personality and meaningful backstory before letting them slip into the background to let Tarzan save the day.
For a long stretch of its runtime this is a more thoughtful approach to Tarzan than we usually see, the action beats landing with visceral thuds in the subwoofer while built on a convincing life-and-death sensation growing naturally out of the emotional underpinnings, which makes concessions to overfamiliar spectacle in its back half disappointing. It culminates in a big stampeding climax that’s more routine than the fascinating early going. But the way there is an effective marriage of adventure with somber impulses, a chase through the jungle with shootouts, fistfights, vine swings, and encounters with wild animals, and an earnest engagement in the reality it creates for itself. Even though this is a movie that plays into tropes – convenient animal assistance; scowling one-note villains; emotional shorthand; flat exposition – there’s a commitment to treating Tarzan’s story with a degree of seriousness, wondering what it would be like to struggle with his place in the world. It doesn’t make this a fresh story, but it makes it a solidly engaging one.
It works because Yates is a real filmmaker with a steady hand. Years helming BBC political dramas and half of the Harry Potter movies have given him the confidence to treat this material seriously without feeling the need to apologize for the potentially sillier moments. He can stage a man fighting a gorilla or a lion nuzzling an old human friend and actually make it resonate with feeling, a fearful intensity in the former and a hushed tenderness in the latter. And then he can turn around and have sincere historical understanding of Belgian slavers in the Congo without feeling exploitative or cheapened. Yates grounds the proceedings in specificity, the handsomely mounted production designed by Stuart Craig (another Potter vet) and photographed by Henry Braham gleaming in cobblestone London, palatial manors, and lovely natural vistas of savanna, river, and jungle. As the movie is interested in examining its wilderness locations from the eyes of a man who was raised there, then left, and is now back again – and through its bifurcated structure that makes it an introduction and its own sequel – there’s an interesting tension powering the action.