As popcorn movies go, The Legend of Tarzan is pretty good. It certainly has a well-cast leading man: Alexander Skarsgård may not be a typical macho screen personality but he looks great and, though low-key, is both likable and believable as the Lord of the Jungle. The equally attractive Margot Robbie hasn’t much to do but also fares well as an assertive Jane Porter.
In this politically correct rehash of the Edgar Rice Burroughs story, there is even an African-American hero, played with brio by Samuel L. Jackson. (This is not at all outlandish, as I first thought: there actually was an African-American named John Lewis Waller who served as U.S. Consul (Ambassador) to Madagascar from 1891 to 1894.)
I wish the filmmakers had cast someone other than Christoph Waltz as the bad guy. He’s good, as one would expect, but it would have been much more interesting to go outside the realm of typecasting for this role.
The story delves into history, with Lord Greystoke (aka Tarzan) being urged to return to Africa in order to see, first-hand, what King Leopold of Belgium is up to in the Congo. It seems he has gone bankrupt while conducting suspicious maneuvers involving a diamond mine. Tarzan doesn’t look forward to revisiting his homeland but changes his tune when he is reunited with old friends, from the human and animal world.
Unfortunately, the weakest part of this film is the climax, where the use of CGI is all-too-evident and nothing at all is believable; literally or visually. (There are ships docked in the harbor that wouldn’t have passed muster with old-school matte painters sixty years ago.)
Even the serial-like escape of our hero (oops—spoiler alert, but not really) makes little sense.
But for most of the going, The Legend of Tarzan is a surprisingly palatable Saturday-matinee-type film that soft-pedals violence and eliminates sex from the menu, unless you count passionate kisses. Screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer and director David Yates clearly had a mandate to make this movie family-friendly. Leading lady Robbie wears a Mother Hubbard dress that shows less skin than Maureen O’Sullivan ever did when she starred opposite Johnny Weissmuller in their Tarzan movies of the 1930s and ‘40s.
My biggest gripe with this mostly entertaining film is its wimpy, half-hearted version of the famous Tarzan yell. If you’re going to do it, do it right.