Alex Casey is a staff writer for New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Movie review: The Legend of Tarzan

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Tarzan starring Alexander Skarsgard.
Tarzan starring Alexander Skarsgard.

Please refrain from rolling your eyes at yet another reboot that nobody asked for, but I'm here to tell you that there is a new reboot that nobody asked for. Bring out the leopard print and get ready for a history lesson, because Tarzan is back in The Legend of Tarzan, a robust re-imagining of the infamous Edgar Rice Burroughs story.

You'll recognise the visual style of David Yates, director of many of the later Harry Potter films, immediately. From the opening shot it looks like the film has been dipped in a bottle of your nan's blue rinse and then left out in the sun to dry. It's a much moodier vision of the technicolour Disney romp I recall from my childhood - a bit like the vibe of the first Twilight film with slightly less lip-biting.

Talking of lip-biting, Alexander Skarsgard steps into the loin cloth as Tarzan - except his loin cloth has been swapped for beige jodphurs and his name isn't just Tarzan any more. He's now known as John Clayton the third, after his father who was killed in the jungle when their ship washed up on the coast of the Congo. We know his backstory already: raised by gorillas, taught to swing from vines and in love with a strange visitor called Jane.

The Legend of Tarzan is concerned with the next chapter in the saga. Living in London several years later in 1884, Clayton has had a good wash and put on a nice neckerchief. He even sticks his pinky out when he drinks a lovely cup of English tea. Invited to revisit his home in the Congo by the evil King Leopold himself, Clayton returns with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and American sidekick George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) in tow.

What follows upon his arrival is a riveting action-adventure through the deep jungle, as Clayton also has Leopold's henchman Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) chasing him down to pay off a bounty to long-time foe Chief Mbonga. During this cat and mouse chase, we witness local tribesmen be chained up, caged and shipped out as slaves to King Leopold's empire - along with his beloved wife.

It's a far cry from Disney, barely a scene will pass without acknowledging the atrocities of the slave trade of the Victorian era. Carts full of elephant tusks in the background also remind us of the shameful environmental exploitation in our not-so-distant past. It's a sober, necessary addition, injecting a strong dose of historical reality. Just like this year's reboot of The Jungle Book, there's a strong end message: that the only real predators the world should fear are humans.

This version of Tarzan might not be one for young children, but there are still moments of juvenile comedy. Samuel L Jackson is the highlight of the film, his one-liners and mismatched physicality with the lead getting roars of laughter from the audience. Margot Robbie spits in the face of the damsel in distress trope (literally), bringing her own round of jibes to the men who keep her imprisoned.

The comic moments and soft-focus romance flashbacks relieve the story of its intensity, but weaken the overall tone in their frequency. As attractive as they are, there's only so many times we need to see young Tarzan and Jane doing steamy looks at each other through the vines.


Although uneven at times, The Legend of Tarzan lends an important historical context to the notorious character, which makes it worth a look. This isn't a jaunt through talking monkeys and musical numbers, but a revisionist view of a fantasy tale set against a background of slavery and exploitation. And let us not forget the most awkward aspect of it all: that one of the most famous characters to ever come out of the African jungle is a white dude, created by a white dude, played by the white dude from True Blood.

Rated: M
Screening now


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