Opening with a text crawl that explicitly orients the film around Europe’s colonization of Africa, David Yates’s The Legend of Tarzan stakes out its thematic ambition within seconds. This narrative focus drags Edgar Rice Burroughs’s century-old pulp into the social perspective of the present day, balancing the material’s inherent exoticism with an examination of the racism that perpetuates it. In this respect, the film recalls Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, which also used the guise of an unnecessary adaptation of a dated work to directly comment on its source material.
Even Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) himself has been updated to reflect this changed context. The film provides flashbacks of the character’s youth living among a group of apes, his tense interactions with human hunters, and his meeting future wife Jane Potter (Margot Robbie), yet we meet the man as the reclaimed John Clayton III, having left the Congo to reside in his parents’ English home as the rightful Lord of Greystoke. Though he’s acclimated to his ostensibly true self, Tarzan exists as a living legend, and when he receives a personal invitation from the King of Belgium to tour a restructured Congo, it’s clearly Tarzan, not John, who the monarch wants. The unseen king, who wishes to exploit Tarzan’s celebrity to lend positive press for his colonial endeavors in the nation, isn’t the only person wishing to take advantage of the white man’s connection to the territory. An American envoy, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), wants Tarzan to see if the king is enslaving the Congolese populace and to use his reputation to call foul if so, while a tribal chief, Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), simply wants to settle an old score.
Placing Tarzan at the center of the film’s narrative and thematic threads strengthens the character’s relationship to larger issues of the exploitation of Africa, but it also dilutes the impact of the critique of racism and slavery by filtering them through a white man’s experience. This becomes especially evident when Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), the Belgian king’s envoy to the Congo, captures Jane along with a group of villagers. Jane is a strident character, and one who regularly points out the racism of her captors; when Rom laments that Tarzan was supposed to be the only casualty of his mission to deliver the man to Mbonga in exchange for diamonds, Jane immediately points out the thousands of indigenous people Belgium has already enslaved. Yet the film completely marginalizes the Congolese, who are limited to group shots where their chained hands and defeated faces elicit reflexive horror. These people are expendable, but Jane, who enjoys the protection of her kidnappers, hogs the screen time, and Tarzan’s attention.
The film’s action sequences are a jumble of movement and cuts that have no discernible relation to the actual motion of the characters. When Tarzan resorts to ape-like pounding with his fists, the camera does loops all around his targets, giving the impression of a flurry instead of an unstoppable ram. And when the protagonist swings into battle on vines, the camera awkwardly combines coverage angles to disrupt the straightforward flow of the arc.
Yates makes up for such spatial incoherence with his more character-focused moments, in which the filmmaker brings out the actors’ subtle flourishes. Skarsgård, whose first language is Swedish, speaks English with the slightly rigid formality of someone who learned it as a second language. This small tic helps to differentiate his Tarzan from others that have preceded it; it also reflects the fact that this Englishman had to learn his true nationality after growing up with animal calls and Congolese dialects. Elsewhere, Waltz brings out the genuine menace in his cartoonish villain: Sitting down to dinner with Jane, Rom hams it up with talk of his plans, but when he uses his silk-thread rosary to constrict Jane’s arm, his mood darkens as he casually informs her that the beads can also make a nice necklace.
Yates is also adept at shooting the build-up to the film’s action set pieces. The first sequence alone, of Belgian troops falling into battle lines with guns drawn on an enveloping mist as they sense danger nearby, excellently generates tension. There are several such moments sprinkled throughout The Legend of Tarzan, such as a group of vicious apes in the deep background of one shot watching Tarzan advance, that are more elegant and provocative than any of the serious attempts to engage with the story’s politics. These images exude the arresting quality of a good pulp book’s cover, though like the rest of the film, they promise more than they can deliver.