The Tarzan yell, a familiar sound to anyone who grew up watching Johnny Weissmuller movies on Saturday morning television. Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912 as a feral child raised in the jungle by Mangani Great Apes, he has inspired dozens of films, radio and television shows, comic books, Baltimora’s hit song Tarzan Boy and even appeared on a GEICO TV commercial. When The Lord of the Jungle wasn’t doing the famous yell Carol Burnett would often close her variety show with the jungle holler.
That was then. Those Saturday morning matinees are a thing of the past and it’s been some time since Tarzan made any kind of rumble in the jungle. “True Blood’s” Alexander Skarsgård and his finely honed abdominal muscles hope to change that with “The Legend of Tarzan,” a revamped look at the chest-thumping hero.
The story begins with a history lesson. It’s 1862 and King Leopold of Belgium has gone broke trying to sap the Congo’s considerable resources. In a last ditch effort to find a valuable diamond mine, Belgian envoy, the vain and ruthless Captain Rom, (Christoph Waltz) has left a trail of carnage across the land.
To access the gems Rom must make a deal with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). “There is one thing I despise above all else,” says the chief. “Bring him to me and you shall have your diamonds.” That “him,” of course, is Tarzan ak.a. John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke, a fella raised by apes when his aristocratic parents perished in the jungle. (Luckily there were no trigger-happy zookeepers nearby so the apes could safely take the child.) Mbongo wants revenge, Rom wants the jewels and a plan is hatched to lure Tarzan, who now lives the life of a lord in London with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie), back to Africa.
US trade ambassador George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) convinces Greystoke to accept Rom’s “goodwill” invitation but he has an ulterior motive. “How does a bankrupt monarch keep the Congo in business?” he asks. “Slavery?”
And that’s just the first half hour. In short order Jane is kidnapped from the warm embrace of her African family so Tarzan must not only rescue her and stay away from Mbonga but also stop Rom and the king from enslaving all of the Congo. It’s a tall order, but he’s a big guy. “A normal man can do the impossible to save the woman he loves,” says Jane. “My husband is no normal man.”
Not content to simply introduce a franchise-able Tarzan to millennials, “The Legend of Tarzan” is also a treatise against man’s injustice to man. Slavery, colonialism and the slaughter of America’s native people are all covered but the political and historical subtext tends to be outshone by the shiny-as-a-new-dime leads. In the tradition of the great Tarzan and Janes of the past Skarsgård and Robbie bring otherworldly abs and cheekbones and some sexual tension—she apparently really likes it when he imitates animal mating calls—to a movie that jam packs in story but works best when it sticks to the basics. Beautiful cinematography, exciting jungle chase scenes and cliff jumps are the stuff Tarzan movies are made of and the new films has those in spades. When it embraces its ape man legacy it swings on all vines. When it steps outside those lines its less successful.
Director David Yates, best known for helming the last four “Harry Potter” movies, seems to have a sense of campy humour regarding his characters—why else would he have Rom sneer cartoon villain lines like, “Your husband’s wildness disturbs me”?—but the emotional moments seem just out of his reach.
Absent any real feelings “The Legend of Tarzan” relies on snazzy filmmaking—lots of flashbacks and highflying action—and fetching leads to keep things interesting. Even then it feels as if Yates is holding back to ensure a young demographic friendly PG rating. There are fights and some violence but much of the actual action happens just off screen. It’s less graphic, I suppose, but takes away the visceral thrills that could have amped this story up.
Will “The Legend of Tarzan” ingratiate the Lord of the Jungle to a new audience? As one character in the film says, “I don’t think so, wild man.”