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A still from The Legend of Tarzan.
A still from The Legend of Tarzan.

Film review: The Legend of Tarzan

The love story trumps the adventure in this Tarzan reboot

This is the story of Tarzan, but it’s not. It’s fantastical, but not fantastic. You don’t exit the theatre with Tarzan’s chest-thumping yodel ringing in your ears, and the African jungle, largely recreated in a British studio, does not wow you.

David Yates, best known as the director of four of the Harry Potter films, takes the reins of this reboot of the Tarzan story. Alexander Skarsgård has big breeches to fill, replacing the most memorable Johnny Weissmuller, who first swung on to screens in 1932 as writer Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most popular literary creation.

Yates’ film is not an origin story. We open in the late 1880s. The Belgian king, Leopold II, is hugely in debt and trying to keep a hold of his empire in the Congo. Tarzan is now a scrubbed-clean British royal, John Clayton, married to the lovely Jane (Margot Robbie). It’s been years since they left behind their lives in Africa—him as a jungle boy and she as the daughter of a teacher in an African tribal community. The story of his birth, adoption by apes and his meeting Jane are filled in through flashbacks.

John is reluctant to take up an invitation from the king to tour his lands in the Congo, but American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson, happily balancing the serious with the playful) convinces him that the African people need to be protected from slavery. Jane is delighted to be reuniting with their friends. Little do they know that the king’s emissary, Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, predictable but sufficiently menacing), has a completely different agenda for Tarzan and Jane.

Once in Africa, we see John revert to Tarzan, shedding not only his bespoke frock coat but also his gentrification, embracing his primal instincts and reconnecting with his roots. This allows for plenty of unabashed male-gazing as Tarzan runs through the jungle, leaps off cliffs and swings on vines as he tries to rescue Jane and the slaves from the clutches of the opportunistic and evil colonizers.

However, the story takes on too many issues—colonization, slavery, ecology, white supremacy—and gets weighed down by its own good intentions. After the delightful Jungle Book, one craves a little magic and wonder. But in this film, the forest is dense and dark and intimidating. In some scenes, the digital animals are so realistic that even as they face off against Tarzan, you imagine them envying Skarsgård’s rippling man muscles. More than the adventure, the love story works like a charm, with Skarsgård and Robbie—who is just lovely as the brave, confident Jane—establishing a warm rapport.

The Legend of Tarzan released in theatres on Friday.

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