Lawrence Toppman

‘Legend of Tarzan’ swings us through a new kind of jungle

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote two dozen novels about Tarzan between 1912 and 1950, including books in which the ape-man battles German soldiers during World War I, gets turned into a 20-inch version of himself, fights off carnivorous dinosaurs, goes to the Earth’s core in an airship, and discovers a mad scientist who has created a race of talking gorillas.

I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t balk at anything that happens in “The Legend of Tarzan,” the new film starring Alexander Skarsgård. So I’m not going to speculate whether stampeding wildebeests would really run through the walls of buildings, vines would be available to grab every time Tarzan plunged from a cliff face into the top of a tall tree, or every animal in the jungle would do exactly as he asked. (But not insisted: They cooperate because of his empathy, not his commands.)

Writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer find an interesting way to tell the story of Lord Greystoke, the British peer who’s jungle-raised by gorillas. And they throw in a hefty dose of social commentary: The unseen villain is King Leopold II, who has enslaved and abused millions of black Africans to dig up diamonds that will pay his enormous debts. (The Belgian ruler “claimed” the Congo for his nation, ruling this presumed Belgian Congo until his death in 1909. He killed more than a million Africans by proxy.)

Skarsgård plays Greystoke as an enigma, seemingly happy in his peaceful life in England as the husband of Jane (Margot Robbie) and a member of the House of Lords. He’s reluctant to return to central Africa, but the prime minister asks him to find out whether Britain could safely invest in Belgium’s operations there.

Greystoke’s reluctance turns out to be well-founded. Belgian agent Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) has promised to turn him over to a vengeful chief (Djimon Hounsou), whose son Tarzan killed years earlier. When Rom captures Jane and uses her as bait, Tarzan reverts to the jungle to seek help from four-footed allies.

The film too often seems to go out of period. The inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson as an American social reformer brings laughs; Jackson’s unimaginable in any era but the present, whatever director Quentin Tarantino thinks. When he starts talking about private parts and firing off a machine gun, amusing though that is, we’re not in the 1880s. Robbie’s drab narration and self-conscious acting also place her firmly in this century.

Nor does Waltz’s villain amount to much. He delivers the tight-lipped, smirky performance we expect from him, and it’s stale. The one unusual touch – he employs a rosary to choke or confine people – seems a heavy-handed stab at the Belgians’ phony “Christianity.” He’s not as interesting as the gorillas, who were generated inside computers; they’re remarkably lifelike and take on distinct personalities.

Director David Yates, who did the last four “Harry Potter” films, delivers both big thrills at the climax and small, spooky ones when Tarzan and the others move through a world of beauty, terror and mystery. The continent becomes a character here – not just its native people and animals but the jungle itself, an alien world to all whites but Tarzan and Jane.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Legend of Tarzan

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz.

Director: David Yates.

Length: 109 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (sequences of action and violence, some sensuality, brief rude dialogue).