PLOT In the late 19th century, an aristocrat raised by gorillas returns to his endangered native habitat.
CAST Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz
RATED PG-13 (rough action)
BOTTOM LINE The white savior with the animal sexuality returns in another campy “Tarzan” movie.
Two years ago, when Harry Belafonte accepted an honorary humanitarian Oscar for his fight against racism, he singled out what he considered one of Hollywood’s worst offenders: Tarzan.
“This porcelain Adonis, this white liberator, who could speak no language, swinging from tree to tree, saving Africa from the tragedy of destruction,” Belafonte called him. He even credited Tarzan with sparking his own personal rebellion “against injustice and human distortion and hate.”
Belafonte’s words surely echoed in the heads of the filmmakers behind “The Legend of Tarzan,” who faced a difficult challenge: How to bring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ uncivilized he-man — who first appeared in 1912 — swinging into 21st century theaters. The movie wants to provide the thrills of an old-fashioned action adventure (it’s directed with high Hollywood gloss by David Yates, of the final “Harry Potter” movies) while stepping gingerly around modern sensibilities. Alas, it doesn’t fully succeed on either count. Mostly, the inherent silliness of the original material reduces “The Legend of Tarzan” to mild camp.
In this version, Tarzan long ago left his ape family to become British aristocrat John Clayton III. Instead of the alert, animalistic Johnny Weissmuller of the 1930s Tarzan films, we get Alexander Skarsgård — intense but humorless — as a cultured man who still has the jungle inside him. At the urging of Dr. George Washington Williams (a lively Samuel L. Jackson), Tarzan returns to the Congo and learns that Belgian mastermind Leon Rom (a deliciously despicable Christoph Waltz) is enslaving the country’s tribesmen.
Are your colonialist alarm bells ringing? Rest assured that “The Legend of Tarzan” is more laughable than offensive. It’s difficult to keep a straight face when Jane (Margot Robbie) follows Tarzan’s mating calls to their bedroom, or when Tarzan fights a gorilla five times his size, or when he greets several hungry lionesses by nuzzling them. At one point, he even lets out that famous yodel, albeit slightly modified. “It’s not quite how I imagined it,” muses Rom.
The whole point of Tarzan, of course, was his reductive, uncivilized nature. Here he wears pants instead of a loincloth, but it’ll take more than that to update this stubbornly outdated creature.