What an underwhelming summer movie season it has been thus far, with so many big blockbusters falling short of expectations. Unfortunately, I have to add The Legend of Tarzan to the bunch, a new spin on the classic story that doesn’t quite make for a great movie.
In an attempt to swing away from the origin story format, we find Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) at home in England with his tenacious wife, Jane (Margot Robbie). He goes by John now and has traded in the loin cloth and jungle for life as Lord Greystroke. Interweaving the legendary tale with some real life history, we’re introduced to George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American historian and civil war veteran, who convinces John (Tarzan) to accept an invitation from the Belgian government to revisit the Congo and see the “improvements” King Leopold has done there. Williams suspects that the King is up to no good in regards to the natives, and that is enough to convince John and Jane to return to what was once their home.
Given that the Tarzan story is severely outdated, credit must be given to the filmmaking team for attempting to rid the narrative of its problematic themes. Introducing Williams as a prominent secondary character helps, especially since Samuel L. Jackson has the verisimilitude in his performance to both be funny and taken seriously. Although his performance contributes much to the entertainment of the film, he is largely absent from the marketing, which is disappointing to say the least.
Despite that, the white savior theme runs strong, and in this day and age, it’s a rather uncomfortable thing to watch and fully enjoy. There’s no question that Tarzan and Jane do their best to save the day and a community of Africans from lives of slavery, and we shouldn’t really judge a film in this way. Yet, the imagery from those scenes speak loudly in more ways than they intend. Even while trying to run away from the strong racist undertones of the original story, the white savior aspect is another troubling issue we’re presented with in this film.
Filtered with well-placed flashbacks and thrilling action sequences, it’s also a pity that the film looks bad. Director David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter films, gives us a dark and murky movie. Maybe it’s to cover up bad CGI; whatever the reason is, it was distracting. Considering its setting and budget ($180 million!), you would think there would be some striking visuals.
Speaking of striking visuals… Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie make the most of their roles as Tarzan and Jane, the latter being the “non-damsel-in-distress” damsel in distress. That may be a little unfair as Robbie is both fearless and fierce when it comes to protecting her husband and community. The same goes for Skarsgard who gives a rather subtle but intense performance. He shares an amiable chemistry with Jackson, who he shares most of his scenes with and their dynamic adds some fun to the mostly serious story. On the other hand, Christoph Waltz is once again doing his schtick as the villain. Nothing is surprising about the King’s emissary, and although Waltz is always committed to a role, he’s hardly compelling here. Therefore, it’s a shame that Djimon Hounsou as a tribal chief looking to avenge his son’s murder wasn’t upgraded to the main villain role. His intensity matched that of Tarzan’s, and their one scene together is easily the most gripping part of the film.
The point this film truly makes is that there is no need for a Tarzan movie. Straying away from its origins and adding a historical twist doesn’t resolve it from all its problems. This isn’t a story anyone really asked for, and it’s not the type that can be told in a way that doesn’t somewhat offend parts of today’s society. For a summer blockbuster, it has its enjoyable and honestly thrilling moments. Fundamentally, The Legend of Tarzan means well but it doesn’t deliver in terms of scope or storytelling.
The Legend of Tarzan swings into theaters on Friday, July 1.