To my knowledge, I had never watched a Tarzan movie. Never read a Tarzan book. Never read a Tarzan comic. Never heard a Tarzan radio drama (or any radio drama, to be honest). Never watched a Tarzan TV show. Which just can’t be right. Surely I did at some point in the last few decades, probably as a kid. Regardless, I would know who Tarzan is, because everyone knows who Tarzan is. Except my wife, who thought The Legend of Tarzan was the sequel to The Jungle Book, which it obviously isn’t, because a tiger in Africa’s not very likely.
So I come with that into the movie theater. As does everyone else. And so director David Yates did something rarely done in Hollywood—something other than what everyone else is doing. And so we’re spared another origin story. Instead, The Legend of Tarzan opens after Tarzan, er, Lord Greystoke and Jane have long since left Africa for sunny England, with the unnecessary backstory given through blessedly brief flashbacks.
But anyway, you know about Tarzan. The question is: is the movie any good? Yes, yes it is. It’s flawed, but it’s a lot of damn fun and had way more emotional resonance than I ever expected.
The Legend of Tarzan does open in the jungles of Africa, but it is to show us the film’s villain, Leon Rom (a real person, more on that later), cut a deal for access to a legendary lode of diamonds deep in the Congo. You can guess what he needs to deliver.
Tarzan himself has been in England eight years. We’re introduced to Lord Greystoke as a group of politicos try to convince him to accept the invitation to the Congo from King Leopold of Belgium that we have every reason to believe Leon Rom orchestrated. They cast it as a money-making opportunity and he says no, one of the few words out of his mouth in the opening scenes. (Contrary to what you may have heard, Tarzan wears a shirt in this and in fact many other scenes.)
George Washington Williams (another real person, played by Samuel L. Jackson) pursues, though, and gives his real reason for wanting Tarzan to go: something is rotten in the state of Belgium. That piques his interest. And Jane isn’t about to be left behind. Africa was her home too.
I was somewhat reticent going in because Alexander Skarsgård and Margot Robbie are primarily known for being competent actors who are really, really good looking. It’s Robbie who really exceeds my expectations—Tarzan largely succeeds by surrounding Skarsgård with more talent—but Skarsgård does well enough (he really isn’t nearly as suited for Tarzan as he was for Eric Northman). He does give Tarzan this posture—back slightly bent, arms a bit out and fingers curled—that I found off-putting at first but that serves to highlight where Tarzan belongs and feels comfortable.
The filmmakers were, I think smart to choose to set the story in the real-life Congo, which was colonized by King Leopold as a private business venture. It was one of the great tragedies of the age and as many as 10 million Africans may have died. But the extent of the brutality wasn’t known until George Washington Williams investigated and wrote an open letter with his findings. Yes, the George Washington Williams played by Samuel L. Jackson was a real life badass. Among other things, he was the first African-American elected to the Ohio state legislature. (Now we just need a movie with Bass Reeves in it.) Leon Rom was a real person too, and may have been an even bigger villain in real life.
The movie is unapologetic and unselfconscious about its setting, which is good because The Legend of Tarzan is at its worst when it becomes too self-conscious and self-aware that it’s a Tarzan movie. Thankfully, that only happens a few times. It’s not a perfect movie. In addition to bouts of self-consciousness, too many of the attempts at humor miss, mainly when the movie asks it of someone other than Samuel L. Jackson. The directing is a little screwy (one of the main reasons for a big divergence in opinion between critics and regular viewers, I think). The plot is strictly paint-by-the-numbers. The climax arrives so abruptly that you wonder what scenes got cut in editing. The scene with the water buffalo wildebeest (water buffalo being another thing you won’t find in Africa) only makes sense under the Rule of Cool. But at the end of the day, Tarzan has plenty of very good action sequences and more importantly nails its emotional beats, and that makes for an enjoyable movie.
Suzannah on The Legend of Tarzan at Vintage Novels.
 Yes, this is my second Monty Python reference in as many days.
 Yes, yes, Belgium and Denmark are in fact two different countries. But does anyone care? No one cares.