Editor’s Notes: The Legend of Tarzan is out on in its respective home video format October 11th.
The Legend of Tarzan (Warner Home Video) is the latest among numerous screen versions of the Tarzan story. The character’s origin tale is by now so familiar that the filmmakers have taken a different route, beginning the story in 1880s England, where Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) — now John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke — lives a life of privilege. Meanwhile, Africa is being exploited by European powers. King Leopold of Belgium is planning to tighten his hold on the Congo by conquering and enslaving its inhabitants.
Greystoke learns of the plot from American diplomat George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) and accompanies him to the Congo, joined by Tarzan’s wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), who insists on visiting the area where she and Tarzan first met. Belgian Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), assigned to do the king’s dirty work and locate fabled diamond deposits, hatches a devious plot to ensnare Tarzan in exchange for access to the diamonds.
The sequence in England is brief and sets up the plot. The action soon shifts to Africa, where most of the movie is set. To get the viewer up to speed, several flashbacks explain Tarzan’s European connection, how he survived after his parents died in the jungle, and how he ignited a furious thirst for vengeance.
Skarsgard looks like a typical Tarzan, with long, flowing hair and a sculpted physique, but portrays the character blandly, lacking depth yet smug about his knowledge of Africa, its perils, and its people. He is devoted to Jane and rescues her from every danger despite overwhelming obstacles but seems ill-equipped to grasp the nuances of politics and colonial power. To him, there is right and there is wrong. Many of his scenes involve wordless communication with animals, glaring at people, and performing amazing feats of physical strength. The political back story is more complex than in most Tarzan movies, but the structure pretty much parallels what has come before.
Christoph Waltz knows how to steal a scene by underplaying, smiling demonically, or slowly delivering threats. He embodies the ultimate slimy villain, unctuous and purely evil. His Rom is the personification of the selfishness, greed, and unprincipled exploitation of colonialism. His scenes with Ms. Robbie are especially creepy.
Jackson’s Williams morphs from diplomat to adventurer when the scene shifts to Africa. Because he is black, his interest in the plight of the Congolese resonates, especially so soon after the Civil War. Jackson offers some comic relief and looks as if he’s having fun with the role, but never resorts to caricature. Williams’ prowess with weapons and his ability to match Tarzan’s strenuous feats is never explained but, hey, this isn’t a documentary.
Ms. Robbie’s Jane proves you can take the lady out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the lady. Her return to Africa is going home again as she is greeted by natives who celebrate her return. She is completely comfortable in the heat and remoteness of the Dark Continent, perhaps even more than at the Greystoke estate in England. Spunky though she is, she nonetheless finds herself repeatedly the damsel in distress awaiting rescue by her man, and Tarzan doesn’t disappoint.
Though the movie never soars, it is consistently entertaining, and there are some wonderful computer-generated moments, the best being a reunion between Tarzan and some adult lions that he knew as cubs. As they approach each other, there is a look of recognition on the faces of the lions, who gently rub their heads against that of their human friend. Picturesque vistas, ostriches running alongside humans, impossible leaps from high places, walks across tree branches, and, naturally, lots of vine swinging, all are made possible by CGI.
To get its PG-13 rating, The Legend of Tarzan mutes its violent scenes by quickly cutting away from excessive blood or gore. This may assure a wider audience but tends to make the film more like a TV flick than a theatrical feature. The movie is perfect summer viewing — lots of action, a colorful central character, and an exotic locale.
Bonus features on the 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include six behind-the-scenes making-of featurettes focusing on the reimagining of the Tarzan legend, the film’s staged battles and brawls, the relationship between Tarzan and Jane, creating a computer-generated jungle, and a public service announcement about stopping ivory trade. A digital copy is included. There is also a 3-disc edition containing the 3D version, with the same bonus features.