Less pompous than “Greystoke” (1984) but more cartoonish than Disney’s 1999 animated version of the material, “The Legend of Tarzan” is pretty to look at but ultimately hollow and occasionally shoddy.
This latest adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s pulp character hinges on a clever premise with a built-in conflict, mainly the early days of King Leopold II of Belgium’s rapacious colonization of the Congo in the mid-1880s. Leopold claimed the region under the guise of humanitarian and philanthropic intentions, and then proceeded to plunder its resources while brutalizing the population to the extent that roughly 20 percent of the indigenous population was wiped out.
Unwittingly thrust into this is one John Clayton III, Fifth Earl of Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard), an international celebrity and dime novel staple thanks to his exploits as Tarzan. The British Empire wants him to serve as a goodwill envoy to the Congo so that they can get in on the ground floor of Leopold’s cash cow; however, Clayton has left the Dark Continent behind, however, and is more concerned with adapting to his as nobleman and starting a family with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), though his wild past haunts his thoughts. He’s persuaded to take the trip by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a Civil War veteran-turned-journalist who suspects the rumors of Belgium’s atrocities may be true.
Meanwhile, back in the Congo, Belgian bureaucrat Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) has brokered a convoluted deal to deliver Clayton/Tarzan to vengeful chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) in exchange for raw diamonds to be used to pay for thousands of bloodthirsty foreign mercenaries to Leopold’s will and enslave the populace.
Folding some realistic high stakes and historical elements into the story helps beef up the dated pulp material; unfortunately, the big ideas are just window dressing and, much like the equally dated adaptation of ERB’s “John Carter of Mars,” there’s an inherent campiness that screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer can’t quite overcome. The plot never really builds beyond a minimum, and the stilted pacing makes it sag often.
Despite its healthy $180 million budget, “The Legend of Tarzan” is hampered by uneven special effects. Tarzan’s ape family is lifelike and compelling most of the time, but much of the rest of the menagerie isn’t as convincing, and the CGI seams often show. (Look closely during the climax and you’ll swear the alligators in the background are plastic props.) Seeing this so soon after “The Jungle Book” only draws attention to the problem.
Skarsgard fares better in the role that many modern-era actors have struggled with. There’s great chemistry between him and his co-stars, though much of the time he’s asked to do little more than brood and let his abs do all the work.
As for the others: Jane is posited as no mere damsel in distress, and Robbie gamely plays her such, but she’s betrayed by a script that turns her into a glorified hostage for much of her screen time. Waltz is less hammy than usual, and gets a couple of scenes of quiet menace to offset the character’s stock villainy. Jackson does what he does best, and brings both gravitas and some much-needed humor.