Every so often, Hollywood revives its interest in Tarzan, returning for inspiration to author Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Lord of the Apes has been recycled for radio, television, and movies, but rarely does he receive big-budget treatment.
The Legend of Tarzan is a large-scale attempt to revive the character’s popularity for a new generation, with director David Yates forgoing the tangible world for a digital one, creating a collection of animals and environments with plentiful CGI.
The lack of natural sweep hurts the picture, but there’s a larger problem in the screenplay, which doesn’t really know if it wants to study Tarzan or use him as an action figure in a tale that seldom inspires awe or excitement.
Photo courtesy of Dark Horse Entertainment
Me...Tarzan. You...pick a better movie this weekend.
During the colonization of the African Congo, the King of Belgium empties his fortune into the region, with hopes to tap its enormous reserve of diamonds.
Sent in to negotiate with native tribes is Captain Rom (Christoph Waltz), a ruthless businessman who makes a pact with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) to return Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) to the region for a fight to the death.
Living life as a gentleman, Tarzan has married Jane (Margot Robbie) and keeps advisor George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) close, trying to negotiate life with his feral side contained.
When Rom kidnaps Jane, Tarzan returns to his original form, partnering with Williams as they enter an African jungle populated with animals and stacked with physical trials. The Lord of the Apes reacquaints himself with the land and its powerful inhabitants as he pursues Rom to retrieve Jane.
Yates gained worldwide recognition with his handling of the last three Harry Potter features, which were rewarded with colossal box office returns and fan approval. Yates was an unusual choice for Potter, but his deliberately dramatic ways fit the tone, with viewers relishing any chance to slow down the wizarding world and soak up its riches.
That crawling sense of storytelling doesn’t work as well in The Legend of Tarzan, throttling an already fragmented tale of the hero’s quest and his origin story, which is portioned out in brief flashbacks.
The screenplay tries to avoid the obvious by introducing Tarzan in his domesticated state with Jane, but it remains in expositional mode, highlighting his years as a toddler in the loving care of his ape mother, learning the rules of animal engagement.
The writing doesn’t really know what to do with its lone female character, periodically giving Jane moments of defiance and one passably thrilling escape through a river loaded with hungry hippos. However, Jane is mostly decoration, spending her screen time chained to poles, waiting for Tarzan to save her. It’s incredibly dull.
More confusing is Jackson as the sidekick. Essentially playing himself, he’s lukewarm comic relief at best, tasked with loosening the feature’s collar as a Civil War vet who’s desperate to prevent a fresh round of slavery in the Congo. Jackson isn’t particularly funny or disciplined, ditching period decorum to modernize the effort’s sense of humor.
The big draw is Skarsgard as Tarzan, but it’s a blank performance, more about the actor’s sculpted body than the character’s harmonious ways with the jungle. Skarsgard is hushed and humped over, allowing the digital zoo to take over the picture, as Yates has no hesitation when it comes to filling the frame with CGI creatures.
The Legend of Tarzan is meant to be huge, offering varied environments and challenges, laboring to delight audiences with traditional vine-swinging derring-do and focused questing. Yates never finds the heartbeat of the effort, successfully building the shell of a summer blockbuster, but failing to fill it with anything interesting. The production certainly spends big bucks to restore Tarzan’s brand name, but what’s missing here is a reason to care about any of it. Me, Tarzan; you...see something else this weekend.