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The Legend of Tarzan swings close to greatness.

Tarzan and the Heart of Darkness

She's Jane. He's Tarzan.
She’s Jane. He’s Tarzan.

It’s the kind of movie that gets so much right, it’s almost heartbreaking it doesn’t hit the bullseye.

Tarzan’s had a thorny relationship with the movies. Many have filled the loin cloth – Buster Crabbe, Johnny Weissmuller, Ron Ely and Christopher Lambert to name only a few. But even with the relative success of the old serials way back in the 1930s, modern Tarzan’s received a lukewarm reception from audiences – and that includes Disney’s animated take both on the big screen and on Broadway.

Here, director David Yates (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) and his crew up the ante with a truly ambitious story that merges Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fantasy hero with the harsh realities of 19th century history, particularly Belgian King Leopold II and his maniacal obsession with Congo that nearly sent his home nation into ruin, while leaving Congo in devastation and robbed of 10 million souls, not to mention all the ivory, rubber and blood diamonds.

Maybe it’s more instructive for viewers to brush up on history rather than ERB’s pulp stories. Check out King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Soliloquy by Mark Twain and Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck.

Tarzan and the Modern Cinema

The Legend of Tarzan is the first big-budget live-action version of ERB’s world to take advantage of a CGI jungle full of intelligent wildlife – gorillas, ostriches, lions – and a couple less-than-genius humans. It’s cool to see modern film effects take over as Tarzan swings through the jungle, sun flares breaking through the foliage.

And who is that Tarzan, also known as John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke? This time it’s Alexander Skarsgard (HBO’s True Blood) and he’s absolutely perfect in the role.

Rather than retreading through an origins story, co-writers Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) focus first on the man who meets with dignitaries in London’s famed No. 10 Downing Street. Soft-spoken. Reluctant to expose himself to the heat and blazing sun of Africa. This legend of Greystoke reluctantly joins a U.S. emissary, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction), on a trip conceived as a diplomatic meeting with King Leopold II but in reality is a trap involving a Congolese king hell-bent on revenge against Tarzan.

By way of flashbacks, Tarzan’s birth and upbringing are brought to light, along with Tarzan’s introduction to Jane (Margot Robbie, The Big Short). Robbie makes for a great Jane, perhaps a smidge too modern for the 1880s – both in manner and in words – but that’s a small concession to make for the sake of a strong-willed woman in a wild environment.

At one point the lead heavy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, Spectre) tells Jane, “I need you to scream for me.” Her response, “Like a damsel?”

By the way, Leon’s the kind of bad guy who carries around a Rosary – and knows how to use it as a weapon.

For some, it might come as a surprise the weakest link is Samuel L. Jackson. Yes. George Washington Williams was indeed a real individual, a Civil War veteran who traveled to Congo and documented the horrors he witnessed, then bringing it to the greater public’s attention. Using him as a sort of comic relief backfires; Jackson turns this strong person into a farce. He’s given an intriguing back story and view – he at one point equates the Congolese slaughter to that of Native Americans back home – but the character is squandered between Jackson being Jackson and implausibilities such as successfully tracking the vine-swinging Tarzan from the ground.

Tarzan and the Possibilities

So much here is great. Skarsgard. Robbie. Walz. The story’s themes. The handling of Tarzan’s upbringing and the genetic disruption it caused. Playing off the obligatory ingredients of old, such as “Me Tarzan, you Jane” and that famous Tarzan jungle call. The blending of true historic elements.

The potential is there for this one to turn into a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style bonanza of action, but that’s where things fall apart. There are some narrative fumbles along the way, particularly with George Washington Williams. And the climax feels sloppy, as if the production was starting to run out of money and needed to wrap it up – in a hurry.

In retrospect, though, a lot of that action is really beside the point anyway. This movie’s heart is with its two lead characters, Tarzan and Jane. The movie doesn’t end with the typical promise of another big-screen adventure waiting in the pipeline. It ends with Tarzan and Jane getting on with their life as a couple, in the environment they find most comfortable and call home.

It’s so close to being the perfect cinematic Tarzan, but instead of earning a wholehearted endorsement, The Legend of Tarzan has to settle for a reluctantly muted, but heartfelt, recommendation.