The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs have been wildly influential on storytelling for over a century, between the author’s works involving Tarzan and John Carter. But between 2010’s John Carter and The Legend of Tarzan, it’s hard to imagine Burroughs’ work carrying much influence on its own for the foreseeable future.
In this update of the character and his story, John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) is living in England with wife Jane (Margot Robbie), years after his time in the jungles of Africa as Tarzan. He’s brought to Africa as part of a diplomatic trip that turns out to be a trap by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to use Clayton as a bargaining chip to secure diamond mining rights. With the help of American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), Clayton will have to venture through the jungle to rescue Jane and prevent the Congo from being enslaved.
It’s interesting to watch the ways that the filmmakers try to work around some of the more problematic parts of the Tarzan stories, which are very much a product of their time. Colonialism isn’t exactly looked upon as a good thing these days, and for good reason. And the idea of a white man conquering the jungle – over both animals and black people – should raise some red flags today as well. The film tries to work around these aspects, by making Tarzan part of the jungle instead of king, and by showing him interacting with Africans in a way that embraces the culture. The inclusion of Jackson as Williams, and basing this story in part on the real-life Williams and his work calling out slave-trading in the Belgian Congo, also helps make the film more palpable.
None of this makes The Legend of Tarzan seem like a good idea for a film, nor does the ridiculously talented cast. But it does make the film itself into something watchable, which is not nothing. Even as it tries to sidestep some of the more problematic historical aspects of its characters, though, it’s still a fairly traditional popcorn flick. Just don’t go in expecting anything more than that.