“The Legend of Tarzan” has a whole lot of fun, big-screen things going for it — adventure, romance, natural landscapes, digital animals and oceans of rippling handsome man-muscle. Its sweep and easy pleasures come from its old-fashioned escapades — it’s one long dash through the jungle by foot, train, boat and swinging vine — but what makes it more enjoyable than other recycled stories of this type is that the filmmakers have given Tarzan a thoughtful, imperfect makeover. That must have been tough given the origin story’s white supremacy problems.
Tarzan has always had bad optics — white hero, black land — to state the excessively obvious. Probably the only real way to avoid his negative image would be to let him molder on the shelf and in our cultural memory. Except that this wild child raised by apes turned wild man forever caught between civilization and nature is a great mythic character — a rich, dense tangle of narrative, philosophical and political meanings. That partly explains why he’s been such a commercially reliable property since Edgar Rice Burroughs cut him loose in 1912, the year Tarzan roared into existence in a pulp magazine that evolved into an empire of books, comics, plays and films.
The image of Alexander Skarsgard crashing bare-chested through the jungle as the latest big-screen Tarzan, his long hair and diamond-cut muscles gently fluttering, gets at another aspect of this character’s attraction. Like a lot of Tarzan stories, this one teems with striking flora and fauna, much of it skillfully computer generated, some of it captured on location in green, green Gabon. But its most special and spectacular effect is Tarzan, one of those characters who have always complicated the familiar argument that visual pleasure in Hollywood cinema is hinged on women being objects of male desire. Johnny Weissmuller, the most famous screen Tarzan, was an exemplary fetishized object of desire.
The casting of Mr. Skarsgard, who spent a lot of time baring his body, along with vampire fangs, on the HBO show “True Blood,” indicates that the filmmakers understand a primal part of Tarzan’s allure. This isn’t strictly a question of Mr. Skarsgard’s considerable physical charms, though these are central to the character. (He isn’t playing nerd boy of the jungle.) Mr. Skarsgard is also a fine actor with an enigmatic melancholy, a quality that has been put to expressive use in small roles in movies like “What Maisie Knew” and that here suggests Tarzan carries a profound burden that makes him more complex than the usual beefcake in loincloth.
And Tarzan needs a burden, something heavy enough to justify the exhumation of such a difficult fantasy figure. He gets one by proxy in “The Legend of Tarzan,” which opens with some historically informed text about King Leopold II of Belgium (1835-1909), known as the butcher of Congo for his role in murdering millions. It’s a grim start to this make-believe, but the mood lifts at Greystoke Manor, Tarzan’s ancestral pad in Britain, where he’s broodily prowling about like a caged animal. Already married to Lady Jane (Margot Robbie, holding her own), Tarzan now goes by John Clayton, having years earlier returned to nominal civilization and its discontents.
Directed by David Yates, from an action-and-incident-packed script by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, “The Legend of Tarzan” takes a while to get going. After announcing its grave bona fides, it continues to engage in a lot of narrative throat clearing, much of it dedicated to seeding Burroughs’s foundational story with historical facts. To this end, John receives an invitation from King Leopold to return to Congo to witness the king’s putative good works. John rejects the offer, only to change his mind after an entreaty from an American, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects that the Belgian king is enslaving the region’s people.
Mr. Jackson’s character is very loosely based on an extraordinary real historical hero named George Washington Williams, who occupies a chapter in Adam Hochschild’s magisterial book “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa.” Mr. Hochschild writes that Williams, whom he calls “the first heretic,” was the earliest dissenter to speak out “fully and passionately and repeatedly” on Leopold’s atrocities. Williams deserves a grand cinematic adventure of his own, and perhaps Mr. Jackson’s comfortable, affable performance, which like the movie itself oscillates between seriousness and gentle comedy, will help make that case.
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Here, though, Williams is basically an elevated sidekick as well as a physician, war veteran and crack shot who’s as proficient at suturing wounds with insects as he is mowing down swaths of white mercenaries. More interesting, especially given how routine colonialist fantasies tend to play out, it is Williams who voices the complexities, catastrophic errors and redemptive efforts of the so-called civilized world, a screen job usually given to white saviors. Williams’s polar opposite is the resident villain, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, predictably good), a silky, uncomplicated sadist who embodies rapacious evil from his all-white suit to his crosslike weapon.
Tarzan remains the man apart and the man in the middle, the uneasy, sometimes forlorn, sometimes exuberant bridge between civilization and nature, between the human and nonhuman animal world. His origin story from his cradle to his new mother’s hairy arms is related in flashback patchwork that conveys what he lost when he left the jungle — home, world and identity. And when he at last returns to that home, he has much to do, including nuzzle old furred friends and lead a rescue mission that soon involves Jane along with thousands of Africans. Jane scoffs at the word damsel, but she’s in distress as well as a stand-in for the abused, captive black bodies that the movie shows only glancingly.
Mr. Yates, who directed the last four movies in the “Harry Potter” franchise, slips easily between intimacy and grandiosity, and he scales up and scales down as easily as Tarzan scrambles up and down the digitally rendered trees. If he and his team haven’t reinvented Tarzan it’s because they’re working in an industrial context that still puts a premium on heroic white men, even if this one doesn’t make you wince each time he turns up. Tarzan is still the white avatar flying through the African jungle with eerie skills, a mighty yodel and existential issues, yet the terrain he swings over is messier, closer and less of a lie than it once was.
Part of Tarzan’s appeal — at least to some — is that he inhabits a world that resembles ours, but without the unsettling distractions of real suffering. It’s become trickier for pop entertainments to gloss over historical traumas, which may be why so many modern colonial struggles involve deep space or an alien invasion. Perhaps it’s easier to rewrite history through futuristic fictions, where worlds can collide before everyone moves on. There’s something touching about “The Legend of Tarzan,” which as it struggles to offer old Hollywood-style adventure without old Hollywood-style racism, suggests that perhaps other fantasies are possible — you just need some thought and Mr. Jackson.