What It's About: The rumble in the jungle gets very big and loud in "The Legend of Tarzan," as all contemporary blockbusters do, but the adventure's best moments are the small, quiet ones.
This latest version of the brave and loyal Tarzan the Ape-Man aims to be a throwback to good old-fashioned yarns but is mostly a typical spectacle with obstacle-course action and flashy visual effects. Yet, the writers' effort to add historical context to the original lore is admirable.
Can the two co-exist in a super-sized escapade? The more brazen portions might not soothe your skepticism if you prefer dramatic conflict straight-up rather than an overload of incredible feats.
Yet despite its flaws, this standard good vs. evil period piece, heightened by dangers in the animal kingdom and sweetened by romance, is rather seductive.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
As an athletic and articulate Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgard ("True Blood") carries the film on his very muscular shoulders. In addition to his strong physical performance, the tall Swede conveys an undercurrent of darkness and the essential ease in nature.
No ordinary human, Edgar Rice Burroughs' character has special powers refined by his wild-child years living with the Mangani apes. Since 1912, Tarzan has been the subject of at least 200 books, films, TV shows, comics — and a Broadway musical.
When the film begins, heroic Tarzan, aka John Clayton III, has been living in England for years. The fifth Earl of Greystoke appears comfortable as an aristocrat living with his lovely wife Jane (Margot Robbie) in a stately manor.
But the call of the wild is alluring. He returns to Africa on an economic goodwill trip for Parliament. Jane is eager to reconnect with the tribes her professor father taught English to, and tags along.
King Leopold II is pillaging the Belgian Congo for ivory, diamonds, rubber and slaves. His nasty countryman Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) has masterminded a deal to make them wealthy, but George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American whistleblower, plans to expose the corruption and genocide.
Tarzan's family reunion has pitfalls aplenty, but saving those he loves is all that matters.
Performances: Skarsgard, a charismatic presence, confidently handles both the brainy and brawny demands of the role.
The statuesque beauty Robbie ("The Wolf of Wall Street") portrays Jane as a high-spirited, savvy partner, which adds a spunky element. The pair make an attractive, devoted couple.
Waltz ("Django Unchained") is effective when he plays a nasty villain in somewhat broad Snidely Whiplash style. As Rom, he is a thoroughly despicable, greedy man of power who must be stopped. He wields a rosary as an unusual lethal weapon.
The only character that seems implausible is Williams, the one that's actually fact-based. Jackson ("The Hateful Eight") is more a comic relief sidekick as an ethical man who fought in the Civil War and has a gunslinger mentality. Unfortunately, he has the least convincing 19th-century dialogue.
But Jackson, no matter how appealing, seems out of place for much of the plot. He sure can deliver a line, though. And his character is definitely in the history books.
What Works: Director David Yates, who was successful helming the final four "Harry Potter" movies, has given this film an unexpected elegance.
The anti-colonialism viewpoint is obvious but gives some heft to the plot.
He and the screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer thoughtfully added depth to the backstory. While they didn't concentrate totally on the beefcake, it can't be ignored. They smartly ditched the loincloth as Tarzan's traditional garb.
Nevertheless, the speedy vine-swinging is extremely impressive.
Henry Braham's cinematography is luxurious in capturing the stunning vistas of Africa.
What Doesn't Work: The pacing is uneven, bogged down in rather complicated details but brisk in the agile and thrilling derring-do.
The flashbacks, explaining Tarzan's jungle upbringing, are integrated into the story so that sometimes you don't realize it's a piece of the past. You have to check the hair length to figure it out.
However, the film's merits are enough to engage. Had they scaled down the parkour and the large computer-generated beasts, 'The Legend of Tarzan" could have survived solely on its human nature observations.
“The Legend of Tarzan”
- Director: David Yates
- Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou and Jim Broadbent
- Rated: PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue.
- Length: 1:50