“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.
(Manohla Darghis gets it — this is really worth reading.)