Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan


  • Director: David Yates
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz
  • Screenplay: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer
  • Based on the Novel By: Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Music By: Rupert Gregson-Williams
  • Cinematography: Henry Braham
  • Running Time: 110 Minutes
  • Premiered: July 1, 2016

Synopsis: Tarzan, having acclimated to life in London, is called back to his former home in the jungle to investigate the activities at a mining encampment (Adapted from IMDb).

Review: Tarzan first swung into the public imagination in 1912 when Edgar Rice Burroughs had his first story published in a magazine. The first Tarzan novel debuted in 1914. This initial effort spawned twenty-five sequels, several authorized books by other authors, and innumerable works in other media, both authorized and unauthorized. Of course Hollywood could not resist the story of a young man who grows up among apes and then rises to become the King of the Apes. Since 1918, Tarzan has been the subject of over 200 films and television shows. Johnny Weismuller starred in the iconic 1930s Tarzan adventures and launched the public fascination with the loin cloth wearing man raised in the jungle. And, naturally, there were the spoofs, my personal favorite being the 1997 George of the Jungle. The most recent big screen adaptation was the 1999 animated Disney Tarzan. In The Legend of Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgard portrays a slightly different Tarzan, one who is caught between two worlds.

The film opens by introducing Tarzan, now Lord Greystoke, and his wife, Jane, living in London. Rehabilitated, to some extent, into polite society, Tarzan/John is a tea-drinking member of the House of Lords and has no time for people who just want to ogle and ask questions about life in the jungle. John Clayton III, as he now goes by, is trying to rebuild his identity. Is he Tarzan, the boy raised by apes? Or John Clayton, the aristocrat whose parents were shipwrecked in Africa and eventually killed in the jungle? Instead of a straight origin story, this movie follows Tarzan’s return to his roots, so to speak. Clayton/Tarzan is very reluctant to agree to a request from the British Government to return to the Congo and assist the bankrupt King of Belgium in a publicity stunt. The American envoy, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), eventually convinces Tarzan to agree to the trip to investigate Williams’ suspicions of slavery. These suspicions seem highly probable due to the manipulations of Belgium’s primary enforcer, Leon Rom (Waltz) . As with all villains, Rom has his own reasons for luring Tarzan back to Africa and it has nothing to do with good publicity.

On the home front, Jane practically jumps for joy at the prospect of returning to her jungle home and getting to enjoy some corset-free adventures. In this adaptation Jane is an American, not British, and her father came to Africa to teach English to the natives, not study the wildlife. So Jane is just as wild as Tarzan in some regards, she just has a bit more of a civilized sheen. Also, this version has Tarzan and Jane being friends/honorary members of one of the native tribes; a place where the characters seem more at home, especially when juxtaposed with the formality of the Greystoke mansion.

One of the larger subplots involves Chief Mbonga scheming with Rom to bring Tarzan back to the Congo. However, the bad blood between Mbonga and Tarzan does not really mesh with the ten years later take on Tarzan. Though the sepia colored and nostalgia dripping flashback scenes depicting parts of Tarzan’s origin story were very well done. However, it is based upon a dime novel, so I am not going to be overly picky on this detail.  The Legend Of Tarzan is a fun, well-appointed summer romp through the literal jungle. David Yates does not seems to have any defining directorial signatures, but he is a competent craftsman and gives the visuals some polish, even when the computer-generated effects are not quite “legendary”. The screenwriters filled the movie with a bunch of subplots involving colonialism, slavery and the pillaging of Africa’s natural resources. They even decided to have Samuel L. Jackson play the real-life journalist George Washington Williams, though he does little more than walk around naming all the various weapons being used throughout the movie. 

One major drawback is the horrendously limp banter between Tarzan and Williams. Unfortunately, Jackson’s character is only  a semi-comic sidekick.  who serves as a competent but only semi-comic sidekick.While Jackson tried his best to put some dimension into his character but Tarzan is not the kind of character that responds well to semi-pithy callbacks.While Skarsgård is certainly an incredibly dishy Tarzan, he never quite captures the tension of a man torn between civilization and the wild. Though that might be more a function of the lines he was given versus his acting abilities. He looks quite good swinging through the trees on those vines; unfortunately, the famous loincloth does not make an appearance. But I am not complaining too strenuously. Margot Robbie is a great Jane; full of fire and spunk. I just wish the screenwriters had given her a little more too do besides slapping people. Waltz puts in another solid performance as a calculating and power hungry subordinate bent on achieving glory. 

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the movie sets up to be an excitable jungle yarn, but never quite reaches the promised climax. There is an impressive action sequence featuring an animal stampede, a hail of machine gun bullets, and a lot of acrobatics. The cinematography is amazing; all the scenery is beautiful and stunning. Gabon stands in for the Congo and evokes the wildness of Tarzan. This movie is full of adventure, romance, natural landscapes, a lot of really large Gorillas, and really impressive vine swinging. Instead of having a jungle chases, there is a very long dash through the jungle on foot, then a train, a boat, and lots of vines. While this is not the best Tarzan film in terms of narrative substance, it is an enjoyable jungle escapade.