Credit where it’s due. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN doesn’t get everything wrong. For one, It has the virtue of addressing why a perfectly capable, perfectly intelligent black man with a Ph.D., George Washington Harris (Samuel L. Jackson as an actual historical character) needs a white man, that would be Lord Greystoke aka Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) to accompany him to the Congo as an eyewitness to the atrocities committed by King Leopold, the European monarch oppressing it in order to pay his debts. Which is to say that it’s the 19th century. Late in that century, but still a long way from the myth of racial inferiority having purchase in the prevailing public opinion. The inherent problem of the racism in Tarzan’s story, though, that’s more problematical. It will take a white man, albeit one raised by apes in the Congo, to organize the locals in order to undo the imperial damage done by Leopold. Without him, they are just so much rifle fodder and slave labor.
Tarzan, who prefers John, is not keen to return to Africa from his comfortable castle in England, where Jane (Margot Robbie) teaches the local children about Africa, and John is working on hybridized coconuts. It is, he avers to the government ministers who want him to make a diplomatic trip there, too hot. Jane, on the other hand, leaps at the chance to see her old friends in the Congolese village where she grew up with her professor father. While John may be King of the Jungle, he is no match for a good argument from Harris about why he should go, nor from Jane’s sulking, which involves climbing trees. Of course John caves. Of course things go terribly wrong with Jane almost immediately becoming the pawn of the film’s villain, which makes me wonder if one of the film’s subtexts might be that even spunky women like Jane would do better to obey their husbands.
The ci-mentioned villain is the evil Mr. Rom (Christoph Waltz at his impishly confident best), enough diamonds to balance King Leopold’s books, and John’s demise at the hands of a tribal chief (Djimon Honsou) with a perfectly reasonable grudge, even if killing and cooking his nemesis is part of his revenge. To be sure, while all this is happening, we are treated to magnificent vistas, soulful elephants, and a herd of ostriches that channel their dinosaur ancestors. There is also Skarsgård, who eschews the traditional loincloth in favor of board shorts that still show off his toned and cut physique to find effect. He also looks good sipping tea at 10 Downing Street at the beginning, and as he swings on those iconic vines with all the reckless abandon of one who has been doing it all his life, or renewing an acquaintance with some lions. That would be one of the other things the flick gets right.
What it gets wrong, alas, is overwhelming. The story, which starts well enough, soon devolves into silliness and occasional incoherence. Flashbacks, which fill in much of John’s backstory of being adopted by a kind gorilla after his parents die in the jungle as well as how he met Jane, become less and less distinct from present day, and they never do explain just how Jane went from being genteelly horrified by John’s intimately sniffing way of introducing himself there in the jungle to being swept off her feet. I mean aside from that tones and cut physique that at their initial meeting was unfettered by board shorts or anything else.
Coincidences that thumb their metaphorical noses at the vast expanse of the Congo happen far too often, and one of the film’s dramatic and emotional climaxes fizzles in its general lack of any kind of common sense or logic during its prolonged screen time. Fortunately, there is Waltz, who is the quintessence of charismatic egotism, and Jackson, who plays it straight most of the time, but periodically gifts us with an ironic commentary about what is going on.
The most satisfying moments of THE LEGEND OF TARZAN barely involve the humans at all. One particularly arresting sequence pits enraged ungulates against a Belgian settlement, and another with hippopotami demonstrating why they are, in fact, the most dangerous animal in the jungle. The rest is predictable, not particularly suspenseful, and periodically positively tedious.