** out of ****
(for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality, and brief rude dialogue)
Released: July 1, 2016
Runtime: 109 minutes
Director: David Yates
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou
Making a Tarzan movie was apparently a passion project for David Yates, the director of the last four Harry Potter films. Now having seen the final result, there’s no doubt Yates had a lot of specific images and scenes in mind. He just didn’t seem to have a story to go along with them – which is pretty maddening when you consider the depth of resources to pull from.
Based on the classic novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs and countless screen incarnations over the past century, The Legend Of Tarzan isn’t likely to be the Lord of the Apes movie that diehards of the books have been longing for, and it really won’t be due to selling out to the masses. For all the digital wizardry on display (I’d argue too much, but then most modern blockbusters are guilty of that), the story is just flat lazy. It goes as follows (spoiler alert?):
Evil guy wants to exploit diamond rich African resources, he attacks Tarzan and the African natives to get it, takes Jane hostage for good measure, but Tarzan rallies the jungle forces – natives and animals alike – and the good guys win in the end.
The self-evident problem is that we’ve not only seen this Tarzan story before; we’ve seen this basic narrative construct in countless stories well beyond Tarzan before. Slogging along as if its goal is to make viewers compulsively check their watches to see just how much longer they have to sit there before reaching the inevitable conclusion, The Legend Of Tarzan is a movie you are constantly two, three, or more steps ahead of for its entire running time.
And there’s not even that much vine swinging.
We hear people talking about Tarzan’s legend more than we actually see it, which is a problem. Yates wisely intersperses the origin story in flashbacks throughout the main narrative (as opposed to front-loading the movie with it), but between that and the laborious machinations of an almost entirely uninspired plot (save for the unique spin that Tarzan is a worldwide folk hero, a fame that John Clayton III, Earl of Greystoke – Tarzan’s true identity – wants to run from), The Legend Of Tarzan isn’t remotely as mythic as its production is striving to be.
Of course when a rote movie like this doesn’t work, you have to start looking at the cast too. After all, by definition, the fact that this plot is so familiar means it’s actually worked before. More often than not. When it doesn’t, yes, the lack of originality screams, but it does so when the cast doesn’t give it life. Most of the actors are good choices in their own rights; they just don’t have any chemistry together – dramatic, comedic, romantic, or otherwise.
Alexander Skarsgård has the persona and beefcake physique you’d want for a Tarzan but he’s not given much to do other than pose and brood; honestly, it’s difficult to judge his performance against such weak material. Margot Robbie is obnoxiously modern as Jane, and simply isn’t credible as the smart, sophisticated, and strong-willed heroine of self-agency she’s supposed to be (a young Sigourney Weaver, she’s not).
Samuel L. Jackson’s along for comic relief, which he provides, but his sensibility sticks out as anachronistic in this particular 19th Century setting that isn’t written by Quentin Tarantino. Christopf Waltz, for his part, is merely repurposing whatever he did as the villain in Spectre, with the aggravating addition of making his Leon Rom a religious zealot. The constant insert close-ups of the rosary beads & cross wrapped around his wrist is an over-the-top bit of secularized symbolism (particularly as Jane boasts she doesn’t believe in spirits). He’s backward, she’s progressive, we get it. But in case we don’t, they have Rom wield his rosary as a lethal weapon (seriously?), while adding a pedophile priest joke (I’m not even kidding) for good measure. This isn’t character depth. It’s pettiness.
That leaves Djimon Hounsou as the only actor who actually commits to an emotionally raw transparency in the one major scene afforded him. Just based on his brief appearance alone, I’d much rather have seen the movie that’s suggested from his backstory with Tarzan. A lesser performance would’ve simply had Hounsou’s tribal leader spit vengeance toward Tarzan, but Hounsou actually layers that with a heartbreaking sense of personal betrayal.
As far as the spectacle meant to draw everyone in, it’s very well done as these things go but nothing particularly distinctive. Plus, as filmmakers continue to increasingly rely on CGI visual effects technology, the less breathtaking their action is becoming. Sure, there’s some adrenaline-fueled flights through the jungle and swoops on vines (though again, not nearly as much as you’re likely expecting), but knowing – both by general awareness and what’s specifically on screen – that none of the daring feats are pulled off by actual human beings, well, the thrill just isn’t there. The actual death-defying moves of grace and athleticism are just 1’s and 0’s in a computer. The aggressive apes evoke a similar ambivalence. Yes, they display an impressive level of technical achievement, but they never shake you up like, say, that bear attack from The Revenant.
The Legend of Tarzan is a movie that feels like it’s constantly starting or leading to something but never really gets there until the actual climactic battle, a major stumbling block for an action movie that should ebb, flow, and cycle through mini arcs and peaks along the way of a grander overarching one. But hey, when newly orphaned baby John Clayton III is discovered by the ape mother, that eerily familiar moment did cause “You’ll Be In My Heart” to pop into my head. Unfortunately, being reminded to rewatch Disney’s superior version is about the best thing you’re likely to get from enduring this one.
But now I’ve saved you the trouble. You’re welcome.