'The Legend of Tarzan': Could we please evolve some more?

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Stuck in time: Margot Robbie as Jane and Alexander Skarsgård as Lord Greystoke in the not-updated-enough "The Legend of Tarzan."

How do you solve a problem like Tarzan?

In the updated version The Legend of Tarzan, the Lord of the Jungle gets a feminist Jane and an African-American sidekick. But is that enough to make Edgar Rice Burroughs' story feel like it's not firmly planted in a bygone century?

True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård takes on the role this time, and, in a way, he's perfect for it. The Swede is muscled, lean, and blond, and spends a lot of time look plaintive.

The famed Jane is played by Margot Robbie, an actress who is so full of onscreen vivaciousness that her character's newfound independence is a perfect fit.

Unlike a lot of reboots, The Legend of Tarzan opts to tell a new tale, rather than revert to the origin story. We meet John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, after he's met Jane and returned to his supposed homeland in England. His English is perfect and he wears those great Victorian dusters, but his hands give him away. After learning to walk on all fours, his bone structure has changed.

He's brought back to the Congo under the guise of a diplomatic mission. King Leopold II of Belgium is colonizing Clayton's former haunt, and he wants the British to be a part of it.

But that's all a ruse.

Leopold's right-hand man, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz, returning to well-worn territory as the slick, chatty villain) covets a stash of diamonds guarded by a fierce tribe whose chief (Djimon Hounsou) wants Tarzan dead. Rom's plan is to deliver Clayton in exchange for the bounty.

David Yates (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) and his screenwriters Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) and Adam Cozad try desperately to update Tarzan for 2016.

Jane gains agency: Even as Clayton is reluctant to return to Africa, she's raring to go. She's sick of corseted life in England.

And there's the addition of a real-life black human-rights activist, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who ultimately convinces Clayton to head back to Africa to expose King Leopold's enslavement of the native people.

Jackson tries his darndest, and he was a big hit at the screening I went to. (He often adds much-needed comic relief). But Tarzan is still a story of a white man who has dominion over not just animals but also Africans, and it feels . . . icky. Kudos for trying and all.

Case in point: The real Williams went to the Congo and was disgusted by Leopold's use of slaves, prompting him to write an open letter to the Belgian monarch. That's pretty awesome.

But The Legend of Tarzan co-opts his defiance, with a white guy getting some of the credit.

The same good intentions are applied to Jane. While it's great that Brewer and Cozad try to embolden her, she's still a damsel in distress in many ways.

She even points this out before spitting in the face of Rom, her captor. But that doesn't make it any less true. And a lot of her worth is placed on having a baby.

On a movie level, The Legend of Tarzan has its moments - and not just because Skarsgård is pretty to look at (although, let's not mince words - that helps).

The set pieces are fun, if not as spectacular as those in Jon Favreau's adaptation of Kipling's similar The Jungle Book. And the plot moves at a nice pace.

But maybe next time, instead of retelling the legend of Tarzan, Hollywood tells The Legend of George Washington Williams.

meichel@phillynews.com

215-854-5909

@mollyeichel


MOVIE REVIEW

The Legend of Tarzan

**(Out of four stars)

yDirected by David Yates. With Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz. Distributed by Warner Bros.

yRunning time: 1 hour, 49 mins.

yParent's guide: PG-13 (violence, sexual situations, language).

yPlaying at: Area theaters.