If Spider-Man can swing through New York on webs of his own invention, and we’re cool with it, I argue a vampire named Eric Northman can swing through the jungles of central Africa by vines, and it’s equally as cool! Except this time he’s not a vampire; just English.
Legend of Tarzan gets a lot right, making some smart decisions and taking risks that pay off. It also struggles with a lot more, weighed down by modern sensibilities in what is, frankly, a white savior story, though it tries its damnedest not to be. Except when it embraces it whole cloth. The movie wisely tries to center around the classic tale of Tarzan saving Jane but sets this in a real historical backdrop where Tarzan affects literally world changing events as a consequence of saving the first white woman he ever saw.
This new version set in the late Victorian era works best when it keeps to the light and simple, and avoids acknowledging the reality of Western, let’s say… influence… on Africa. Especially, let’s say… Belgian influence… on Africa. But at the same time, the movie makers seem aware that they can’t just pretend that the audience is as naive and unaware as when Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the original tales, so they tried with mixed amounts of success to weave the classic Tarzan/Jane story into actual history by incorporating real life textbook figures into the narrative. I don’t think it really works, but it might be a necessary step into creating a Tarzan that isn’t explicitly racist in nature.
To some degree, everyone knows the Tarzan epic through the dozens of movies over the years, including the Disney animated one, so they don’t belabor the origin. We don’t need constant reboots of every story that’s reached collective consciousness. So, Legend of Tarzan takes one of the few smart pages from Man of Steel and weaves in the high points of Tarzan’s early life through what is otherwise the story of his return to Africa after nearly a decade of mostly tranquil married life in England, living as the original reality star.
Alexander Skarsgård gives a low key performance, playing the part as unfathomable and brooding, but it felt in keeping with a character who’s forever between worlds. He put enough of himself into it to believe he was Tarzan, and that he could carry a franchise. Also, his eyes are up there. Seriously, I mean, I’m not saying his body should get a billing of its own, but I’d understand if each ab was listed on IMDB separately. Margot Robbie “updates” the traditional Jane in an appealing way, bringing a few new skills and some swagger. She’s basically the only person not impressed with Tarzan the legend. I can buy they’ve been together awhile. And even though she’s forced to play the traditional damsel in distress, she does it with enough spit and vinegar to make the
missionary’s professor’s daughter fun to watch on her own. Someone should put her in a super hero movie soon.
Despite playing historical figures, Christoph Waltz and Samuel Jackson both give it their usual, though diametrically opposed, expected performances. Waltz brings the reliably consummate scheming villain and Jackson the over the top instigator. Djimon Hounsou, however,was pretty wasted, with almost no screen time- though with his last scene he brought enough intensity for three times as much dialogue.
Bonus points for spotting Vandal Savage hanging around as a minion. New head canon accepted.
The final act was absolutely crazy! But in the best possible way. Admittedly, if you’ve suspended your disbelief this long, you’ll probably be fine going into this part of the movie with nothing but laughter and awe. Here at last the movie decides “screw it” with being historical and goes full camp. It reminded me of what’s best in movies like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Thankfully it saves the true insanity only for the end, so as not to be completely dragged into B movie ranking.
Really, the most unbelievable part of Legend of Tarzan is seeing Skarsgård with that body after eight years of English food. I call shenanigans.
And now it’s time to do the math and see if this Victorian period piece gets a Geek Stranger Score worthy of the king of the jungle!
And so we have it. Our vampire-turned-Batman-of-the-late-19th-century-Congo-but-without-all-the-fun-toys-and-all-too-often-not-even-a-shirt may not have scored worthy of the crown, but it’s a solid number that would make any Earl of Greystoke proud.