by Michael B. Hock
Tarzan always fascinated me when I was growing up. I’d like to say that it was because of the fascinating dichotomy between the calmness and (supposed) safety of civilization and the wild of the jungle, or what it would mean to have an identity freshly established without input from the world around you. But, like I said, I was growing up when I was fascinated with Tarzan, I mostly liked the idea of swinging on vines and not have to suffer the hassle of putting on pants every day.
On the plus side: air conditioning.
The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård (and his magical eight pack) as the titular King of the Apes, and Margot Robbie as the not as titular but closely associated Jane, picks up well after Tarzan has returned to Greystoke manner as a type of celebrity. This negates the need for a lot of well-worn buildup where we watch an infant learn to crawl then swing around on vines, as these scenes are expertly inserted into the narrative without derailing it.
The movie picks up with some kind of long, political explanation as to why Tarzan needs to head home, but let’s face it, you don’t really care because, like I said, abs. But basically, Tarzan is lured back from the “civility” of London to assist George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson, popping up very unexpectedly) with that diplomatic mission, but really to prove that slave labor is alive and well in London. Also, Christopher Waltz shows up to work with Djimon Hounsou (who also seems like he’s everywhere, which is good. If they passed a law that said that Djimon Hounsou needed to be put into every movie, cinema would be a better place) to get revenge on Tarzan for reasons.
But again, you don’t care because abs.
If it sounds like I didn’t like this movie, it’s quite the opposite. This is a fun movie that’s never bogged down in the aforementioned politics or even the supposed angst of Tarzan leaving his home. When it does, Jackson is more than happy to lighten up the mood, reminding everyone early on that “Me Tarzan, you Jane” is where all of this started. There are moments that get dragged down by the mood – a large subplot relies on the death of Tarzan’s adopted mother – but it’s kept a light throwback adventure movie.
The story of Tarzan and Jane, while well known, Skarsgård does a more than a wonderful job as Tarzan. Looking stiff and uncomfortable in the earlier scenes when he’s civilized, he becomes more and more comfortable as he sheds his clothes and begins becoming, once again, the king of the jungle. An early scene where he bonds with some lions that he knew as cubs comes across as sweet, as if he really has known these creatures for his entire life. More than looking the part, he feels natural as Tarzan. In addition, Robbie really shines as a much more take-action Jane, who is not really good at the whole damsel in distress thing. She is played here as someone who is more accustomed to life in Africa, and Robbie holds her own in some tense scenes with Waltz. (Who plays a fantastic villain.)
Well, that and abs. Skarsgård worked extremely hard for his wardrobe. Acknowledge it.
Even the way the movie is framed, with early shots being more grey giving way to the sun and the light, it’s visually very well put together. I also applaud the filmmakers, as I have earlier, for mixing Tarzan’s well-known backstory into the plot. This helped speed things along a little bit more, avoiding the trap that a lot of origin stories have where we spend 45 minutes remembering that Batman’s parents were shot, Spider-Man was kind of a jerk when he first gets his abilities, and James Bond fell into a vat of radioactive awesome before getting into any real plot. It’s just a well put together movie, one that ties together what Africa was at that time. For our villain, it’s a mysterious place filled with an opportunity to get rich. For our heroes, it’s home, a warm inviting place for them to settle down.
I’ll be honest, I put this movie on my official list because it seemed interesting. I couldn’t have expected that it would turn out to be one of my favorite movies of the summer. Simply a great time in the theaters.