‘The Legend of Tarzan’ – An old-fashioned jungle adventure

Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams and Alexander Skarsgard as Tarzan appear in a scene from David Yates' "The Legend of Tarzan." (AP)

Nature is a force to be neither tamed nor controlled in director David Yates’ “The Legend of Tarzan,” a jungle adventure based on the original stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Set in 1890, Alexander Skarsgrd stars as John Clayton, the legendary Tarzan, who has acclimated to life in England, but is called back to his home in Africa to stop an army from wiping out the Congo’s natives.

Timothy Hogg

Timothy Hogg

John (Skarsgrd) is unable to shake his identity as Tarzan after being brought back to London by his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). John initially refuses an offer from King Leopold of Belgium to travel to the Congo for publicity, until George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American, warns John that Leopold might be enslaving the natives to mine diamonds. Seeking proof, Williams accompanies John and Jane to Africa, but Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a hired goon for Leopold, will do anything to stop “Tarzan” from liberating the African Congo.

In the face of non-stop action films, “The Legend of Tarzan” takes a moment to return to slower films of the past, combining its story with the pages of real history. The result is a film that features some sequences of entertaining action, while trying to emphasize its characters. This is the true focus of Burroughs’ original stories; the plot itself is little more than an adventure fantasy, and is supposed to come to life through the lives of its characters.

It is therefore disappointing that a film with so much thematic potential ends up discarding most of its suggested plot threads. Some of the characters are quite interesting and are given a lot of depth for the audience to absorb, especially Jackson’s Williams, who has more development than the main character, Tarzan, and feels like the more interesting one to watch. Perhaps this is a result of the film’s narrative structure; Williams is a surrogate for the audience, and therefore it is much easier to identify with him.

Even the film’s villain, portrayed by Waltz, feels underdeveloped. His motivation is simply greed, and he is given no redeeming qualities to let the audience sympathize with his point of view. This is further hindered by the film’s choppy pacing. The story will occasionally seem to drag, only to quickly toss away narrative threads in order to wrap everything up by the 100-minute mark. Subplots appear to be forgotten with no further mention.

However, this simplicity is not an entirely bad thing. The film’s visuals are beautiful and breathtaking. The characters, although somewhat two-dimensional, soon fall into place within this atmosphere. The filmmakers have expanded the story’s themes just enough to keep the audience interested, and use this to the best of their advantage, presenting a throwback to a vanished genre. While there are a few glaring issues with the overall plot, when the film finds the right direction, it pulls itself together nicely.

“The Legend of Tarzan” from director David Yates is a fun, old fashioned adventure that leaps and swings from the pages of Burroughs’ stories. The filmmakers have taken a few creative liberties for the sake of modern audiences, and in the process have unfortunately sacrificed some needed depth for the characters, but still present a story that is fun and engaging.

My grade: 6.5 out of 10 stars.

(Timothy Hogg has a minor in film and media studies from Slippery Rock University. Readers may contact him by email at timothyhogg.thederrick@gmail.com.)