Sometimes it's easy to describe a movie as a "throwback:" something that would have worked if it had been released in a bygone era with different cultural standards and practices. For example: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was a throwback to the film serials of the 1930s and 1940s that George Lucas grew up watching. "The Legend of Tarzan" feels like a throwback to the black and white adventure films of the 1940s and 1950s where the hero was white, the damsel was in distress, and the natives were restless.
The problem with throwback films - especially in a time when racial, cultural, gender and sexual sensitivity are at an all-time high - is that the movies can tend to play a little old-fashioned. That means that a movie featuring a white savior, a woman in constant need of rescue, and a Congolese warrior named Mbonga might not sit well with a modern audience.
"The Legend of Tarzan" takes place after the true origin story of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan. It chronicles his return to the Congo to fight slavers and other dastardly villains. The film flashes back to baby Tarzan being raised by apes and growing up in the jungle, but the primary story is a re-civilized Tarzan (back to his birth name of John Clayton III) and his wife Jane as they head back into the jungle. Clayton re-discovering his inner Tarzan is a huge part of the fun of the film.
Alexander Skarsgård is a fantastic Tarzan. He bounces between the noble gentleman and the dangerous jungle man with nuanced ease. His chemistry with Margot Robbie's Jane is palpable. Robbie adds a wise-cracking badassery to Jane that gives her much more agency and power than the usual damsel in distress, but the character still only exists as a reason for Clayton to become Tarzan again.
Samuel L. Jackson has a much juicier role than the trailers showed, as the historical figure George Washington Williams, who travels to Africa with John and Jane because he wants to prove the Belgian government is enslaving the Congolese. His character's arc provides much of the film's true drama.
Director David Yates isn't stupid. He knows that the story of Tarzan is somewhat archaic and plays everything as seriously as he can while building a world where the ridiculousness of some of the action and ideas can exist beside a story featuring African slavery. Yates directed the last four "Harry Potter" films, and he brings the grounding presence he brought to that universe along to "Tarzan." He ditches the shaky-cam aesthetic he added to that franchise and instead frames and shoots "Tarzan" classically.
The progressively escalating action makes for a great adventure film that eventually runs out of steam by the closing credits. The movie just can't keep up the pace set by the first two acts, and the finale feels like the air slowly being let out of a balloon.
Watching "Tarzan" is an exercise in not being offended. If viewed through the lens of a 1930s action serial, the film is successful. As a modern action movie it feels too old-fashioned for its own good. A socially conscious audience in 2016 will find much here to be offended by as well as several clichéd archetypes that might have been better left to history.
The Legend of Tarzan
Dir. David Yates
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16