The Legend of Tarzan is the epic return to the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs by director David Yates (Harry Potter franchise films 5-8; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). Interwoven in a story of decades-old revenge and intrigue, Craig Brewer’s (Hustle & Flow) script takes star Alexander Skarsgard through the expected Tarzan-related world with a modern day commentary on slavery, capitalism, and colonialism.
In the present, King Leopold of Belgium has sent his chief emissary, the cutthroat Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to the Congo Free State to claim diamonds Belgium needs to fund the country. Rom discovers that the only way to reap the diamonds he needs from the local tribes is to lure the Earl of Greystoke AKA Tarzan back to the Congo in exchange. But Greystoke only agrees to return to the Congo when an American ambassador, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), points out that the only way that the Belgiums still rule the Congo is through slavery. The rest of the cast is fleshed out by Margot Robbie’s Jane Porter Clayton, Greystoke’s wife, and Rom’s psychotic henchman, Casper Crump’s (DC’s Legends of Tomorrow) Major Kerckhover.
No matter. He’s Tarzan; you’re Jane. He’ll come for you.–Rom
Ultimately, the film quickly moves to a road trip/impossible rescue flick that sets the ‘primitive’ Tarzan up against the sophisticated Rom. While the tension is obvious, anyone with a knowledge of the Tarzan stories knows that ultimately, Tarzan will rock these imperial brutes because he’s one with the jungle. While there is plenty to see about the power of the Tarzan stories – jungle power! – the degree to which Skarsgard, Waltz, and Robbie deliver solid performances in a more nuanced plot allows the film to be greater than some retread of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan.
A normal man can do the impossible to save the woman he loves. My husband is no normal man.–Jane
One might simplify any Tarzan story to say that it’s a love story between Tarzan and Jane. That would be … partially correct. While Skarsgard and Robbie have chemistry, the love story is even wider, like Zorro or the Phantom. Tarzan loves the whole world he knows – the jungle, the people who live there, the animals. He is a force of nature, a collision or symmetry of humanity and nature. But he is willing to lay his life down for his wife, and he represents a messianic promise to the people of the Congo, who are looking for a savior, and a hero. Yes, it’s that black and white (no pun intended). But the added dynamic of the change in Williams – from Civil War veteran to liberator of the Congo – also shows the power of Tarzan’s example and purpose.
Sure, The Legend of Tarzan is CGI-influenced and action-packed, but it’s also deeply thoughtful, even theological, about what it means to be a hero to others and to recognize one’s calling in the world.