REVIEW: Is 'The Legend of Tarzan' family-friendly? (And is it as bad as critics say?)

by Michael Foust, Guest Reviewer |

CHICAGO (Christian Examiner) – Sometimes you walk into a movie theater with high expectations, suffer through two hours of nonsense, and walk out wanting all of those lost minutes of your life back.

Yet other times it's exactly the opposite: You walk in with low expectations, are shocked to discover an intriguing plot, and walk out thinking you've seen one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

For Warner Brothers' The Legend of Tarzan (PG-13) – which opens this weekend – the latter is definitely the case. The trailer revealed nothing more than lots of CGI images, a well-known character swinging from tree to tree, and a few bad guys with guns. The film, though, is nothing like the trailer. Yes, despite what you might have heard, it is quite a good movie.

The Plot

Set in the late 1800s, Tarzan, played by Alexander Skarsgård, is essentially retired form his tree-swinging days in the Congo, having taken up a life as a proper and gentrified British man alongside his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie). He's now known as John Clayton or Lord Greystoke, and he has no desire to go back to the African jungles that brought him so much emotional pain.

But he is persuaded to return by not only his wife but also by an American diplomat named George (Samuel L. Jackson), who believes he can make a difference in the Congo, where the slave trade still thrives. The movie's politics are difficult to follow at times, but we eventually learn that Belgian officials – trying to save their bankrupt country — are wanting to capture Tarzan so they can deliver him to an African tribal leader, who then will give them diamonds.

(Plot-spoilers ahead)

The Legend of Tarzan is a visually appealing film, showcasing the beauty of the best of Africa – the grand landscapes, the marvelous waterfalls and rivers, the incredible animals. Elephants, lions, zebras, ostriches and of course gorillas all are there, and it's difficult to tell if they're CGI or the real thing.

The film employs flashbacks well, catching us up on Tarzan's past and why he hesitated on going back.

Character development is a strength, and it doesn't take long before even skeptics in the theater are cheering for Tarzan and Jane. Much of that is because of the film's strong anti-slavery message. We see Tarzan free slaves from a train, and we hear Jane stand up for their humanity during a conversation with a key Belgian official.

Perhaps we all grew up thinking the story of Tarzan was for children, but this film delivers with a plot for adults – without any of the cheesy stuff we might have expected.

Director David Yates (the final four Harry Potter films) also does a fine job showing us the love between Tarzan and Jane without making the film overly sexual (although some parents still may not want young children to see it).

The Bad

The Legend of Tarzan is a very violent movie. It begins with a battle in which we see people shot and speared, and then view bodies lying on the ground. We also briefly see bodies hung on poles. A fight scene between Tarzan and a gorilla is quite intense, as is another fight scene in the film's final minutes.

Similar to other Tarzan movies and programs, this one, too, includes a not-so-subtle message that humans and animals (particularly gorillas) are somewhat equal – and exactly alike in some aspects.

It is sprinkled with about nine coarse words (none said by Tarzan) and it includes a brief bedroom scene (not explicit – details below).

Lessons for Families

The slavery storyline can be used as a launching point for a discussion about racism, sin and Christ's command to love all people (John 13:34). Everyone – "red and yellow, black and white" —is created in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27).

At the same time, though, we are not to place animals on the same plane with people – which Tarzan and the movie seemingly do. (Tarzan: "They're not gorillas!") God gave humanity dominion over the Earth and made people the pinnacle of His creation. Animals were created for God's glory and for our enjoyment – which does imply an element of protection, although we aren't to give them human-like qualities, nor threat them like trash.

The unique love bond within a family is also evident, as we see Tarzan not let anything stop him from rescuing Jane.

Finally, there's a lesson about regret and redemption with George, who had committed terrible acts in a previous war but is able to play a role in freeing Congo slaves.

The Verdict: Family-Friendly?

I did not take any of my older children (8, 4) to watch The Legend of Tarzan, and I'm glad I didn't. The violence is extreme for their age, and the realistic-looking gorillas no doubt would have scared them. The phrase "family-friendly" is quite subjective, but this one is rated PG-13 for a reason. I'm not sure what age is appropriate for this one, but if you don't want your children watching heavy violence, steer clear.

Legend of Tarzan is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality, and brief rude language.

Entertainment rating: 4 Family-friendly rating: 3

Language: About nine words, including d---, h---, s—t and ba----d. Christ's name is abused once. Most of the coarse words are spoken by Jackson's character, who also at one point makes a crude joke about a gorilla's testicles.

Violence: Lots of it. There is a battle in which we see people shot and speared, and then bodies lying on the ground. We also briefly see bodies hung on poles. A fight scene between Tarzan and a gorilla is quite intense, as is another scene in the film's final minutes.

Sexuality: Tarzan and Jane kiss passionately three times, one of those in a bedroom scene that lasts about seven seconds. Very little skin is seen, but sex is implied when we see them in bed the next morning. The scene is tame even by TV standards, although some parents will be bothered by it.

Michael Foust has covered films for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelFoust