The Legend of Tarzan

The Legend of Tarzan

Johnny Weissmuller. Ron Ely. Christopher Lambert. There are as many Tarzans as there are jungle vines to swing from. It seems we never tire of the Edgar Rice Burroughs character and in this new re-imagining from David Yates, who directed the last four “Harry Potter” movies, there are a lot of moving parts: part history lesson, part cautionary tale, part political commentary and don’t forget the rip roaring action adventure with a little romance thrown in as well.

In this story, set in 1884, Tarzan, or John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård), has been away from the jungle for some time. He’s now a restless lord of the manor that he shares with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), back in England. Meanwhile, the African Congo is being plundered by Belgian King Leopold II, who gained control of the richest part of the continent when European rulers divided up spoils.

Now, he’s almost bankrupted Belgium in his attempt to exploit the people and riches of the Congo and sent his henchman Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to get things under control. Rom needs the diamond mines under the rule of one tribe, whose ruler (Djimon Hounsou) wants one thing in return: Tarzan. Apparently they parted on bad terms.

Under false pretenses, Rom gets John and Jane to return to Africa. Also joining them is a U.S. envoy, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who believes Leopold and Rom are intent on enslaving the people of the Congo. Once there, Rom kidnaps Jane to lure John to his death, but he must have forgotten they don’t call him the king of the jungle for nothing.

It’s an interesting premise to launch a Tarzan adventure, but soon it’s all grassy savannahs and damp jungles as John/Tarzan reconnects with his primitive past to save Jane. Wrapped up in all this is the backstory of how John was raised by apes. Using a little digital magic that is reminiscent of the “Planet of the Apes” CG effects, the animals, including gorillas, lions, crocodiles, water buffalo and others, come to life in a very natural way.

Skarsgård is a very capable Tarzan. Just moody enough with a touch of wit. Brooding, but not insufferable. And not too ripped, but just enough to suggest he really could swing through the trees. In a refreshing twist, Jane is not any damsel in distress. Robbie plays her as a lady with some gumption, and she ably matches wits with Waltz, who is now the go-to guy for this kind of character — the charming bad guy with an undercurrent of menace.

As Williams, Jackson is more of a sidekick for Tarzan, but in addition to being a crack shot with medical skills, he also finds time to give a little fireside dissertation on the indignities and tribulations indigenous people suffer at the hands of foreign tyranny.

It’s a little pause for reflection in a movie that is really just an old fashioned action adventure, and it should have stuck to that

While it has its shortcomings, I have to root for a movie where the only characters that need special effects are the animals. No one has super powers or feels the need to leave a metro area in rubble and dust trying to save the planet. No, this is just boy meets girl, boy loses girl and boy just happens to be king of the apes, which is going to come in very handy in getting girl back.

Two chest thumps for “Tarzan.”