Somewhere along the way studios got the notion in their heads that audiences are clamoring for more Edgar Rice Burroughs. Disney missed badly with John Carter, a bloated sci-fi flop that made Taylor Kitch bounding through space surprisingly dull. Warner Bros. has been developing The Legend of Tarzan for years in hopes that the classic jungle hero could be revived for today's superhero-obsessed moviegoer. And maybe therein lies the problem, as the film seems stuck between the pull of tradition and the need to resemble a super-powered comic book character.
As it stands, The Legend of Tarzan is a perfectly serviceable big budget yarn, made to look sufficiently blockbustery by veteran Harry Potter director David Yates and The Golden Compass cinematographer Henry Braham. There should also be special acknowledgement given to Alexander Skarsgard's abs, which seem to be glistening and rippling whether he's swinging through the trees or standing idle. What the film doesn't do is strike a clear direction for the character. Is this a re-examination of the 19th-century colonialist politics of Burroughs' novels? That's there, but hardly much of a commitment to it. So then what's the purpose for this movie's existence? It seems that screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer (of Hustle & Flow fame, and once eyed to direct this, which would have been very interesting) have settled on simply making a summer action movie. Period. Nothing wrong with that, but it's disappointing given the potential of the source material.
For instance, there's real drama in the tale of John Clayton (Skarsgard), the Earl of Greystoke who has forsaken his jungle past as Tarzan for a more civilized life with his beautiful wife, Jane (Margot Robbie). The story rightfully assumes we already know who the heck Tarzan is; he's the guy not named Mowgli who was raised by jungle animals from childhood. He has no desire to return to his home in the Congo, "It's hot", he says when requested to go back to Africa on a British diplomatic mission. However he's convinced by Col. George Washington Williams, a real-life African-American scholar, Civil War veteran, and adventurer played by Samuel L. Jackson in all his Jackson-ness. Williams tells him to forget the diplomatic crap and go because of devious machinations by Belgian King Leopold, who has sent envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to enslave the natives with the aid of mercenaries. Rom strikes a deal with tribal chief Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) who seeks vengeance on Tarzan for a past violent encounter.
There are interesting fact-based details woven in and given a fictional, often cartoonish spin, which can be frustrating. Williams was a real guy who actually did expose Belgium's brutal and inhumane treatment of Congo natives. He was a true hero and a gentleman. Here he's mostly comic relief, struggling to keep up with Tarzan's energetic vine-swinging or having awkward encounters with the natives. The humor he adds is both a blessing a curse for the self-serious film. Rom was far more terrifying in reality than the dainty, mustache-twirling heel Waltz portrays him as. As the head of Belgium's "Force Publique" he was known to carry around the severed heads of Africans. In the film he has a necklace which he occasionally uses as a weapon. Eh. It's hard to take Waltz seriously in these villain roles at this point because they are all variations of the same thing.
As the epitome of "white savior complex" Tarzan is an inherently difficult character to make work, especially right now with diversity such a major issue going around Hollywood. That makes his frequent scenes alongside the Congo natives a little awkward visually; here's this perfectly dolled-up white couple coming to save the thousands of African warriors who apparently don't know how to fight back. Good thing Tarzan and Jane are here to be held up (literally in some cases) as It wouldn't be that much of an issue if saving the African people was Tarzan's priority but it's quickly shunted aside in favor of a rescue mission to save Jane. And once that happens it's really the only thing that matters. "He's Tarzan, you're Jane. He'll come", Rom says. And of course he's right. Speaking of which, Jane poses a problem as well. Granted, Robbie is perfectly fierce and strong as Jane, but she's every bit the damsel in distress the film attempts, pointedly, to convince us she's not.
"I need you to scream for me", Rom says.
"Like a damsel?” is her reply.
Well, yeah. Like a damsel. When the entire movie is about rescuing you, that's what you are.
As for Tarzan himself, Skarsgard is excellent in the role. Obviously from a physical standpoint the former True Blood star is a nearly perfect choice. He's tall, lean, muscular, and he captures Tarzan's animal ferocity when challenged, but also his gentle side. When in combat during the film's impressive action scenes, like one in which he battles his ape brother in a WWE-style smackdown, Skarsgard appears to be most comfortable. That fight, along with his showdown with Mbonga, teases a deeper understanding of Tarzan that the film sadly never follows up on, as he's forced to show humility and acceptance of another's superiority. It's the conflict between his animal urges and human qualities that make Tarzan interesting and The Legend of Tarzan doesn't go far enough in exploring that aspect. But we do see plenty of his powers, such as incredible speed, strength to go toe-to-paw with any creature, and the ability to communicate with the animals. He's like Aquaman's long-lost kin we never knew about.
Despite a few curious camera shots, such as a sudden fondness for Michael Bay-style 360 rotations, Yates shows the same grasp for storytelling that took the Harry Potter franchise to another level. He has to contend with CGI that looks terrific in some cases but gets awfully dicey the more animals fill up the screen, and that's quite often. The finale has about a thousand lions, gazelles, crocodiles, and other creatures waging war against those pesky human enslavers. It's an impressive spectacle, for sure, but also serves to highlight The Legend of Tarzan's inability, or unwillingness, to be more than just a standard adventure film rather than a fresh take on the character.
Rating: 3 out of 5