Tarzan swings and misses
Failing on every account to make its main character seem special, let alone legendary, The Legend of Tarzan is one of the summer’s weakest would-be blockbusters.
In fairness there was little to the trailers to suggest Legend was going to spark some renewed interest in Tarzan. While my expectations were low, the film still managed to be disappointing.
When a wealthy industrialist seeks to pillage the Congo for its resources, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) recruits John Clayton aka Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) to return to his former jungle home. Tarzan seems perfectly socialized and not at all eager to leave his family estate until George suggests some of his friends are being rounded up as slaves. That’s enough incentive for Tarzan and his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie, Focus).
There Tarzan encounters the industrialist’s main henchman Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained), battle apes and a tribal warlord (Djimon Hounsou, Guardians of the Galaxy) intent on getting some long-desired payback.
Greater than any tree or mountainside, the biggest challenge the filmmakers have to overcome is explaining what makes Tarzan cool in 2016.
This year alone audiences have seen Deadpool flip the comic book genre on its head, Batman battle Superman, Dory find a new adventure and Captain America and Iron Man go toe to toe. To stand out at this point in 2016, a film needs to clearly identify what makes the hero special.
It’s possible Tarzan is just too dated a concept. There’s that somewhat uncomfortable tinge of racism that in the current #OscarsSoWhite cinematic climate makes the film seem a bit tone deaf. Yeah, it’s another film where the white guy has to save the day while being cheered by minorities.
Not to mention audiences are used to seeing Jedi swinging lightsabers, superheroes smashing villains, transforming robots and a gun-wielding raccoon. A guy swinging from vines alongside apes just can’t compare. Of course that ignores the superb The Jungle Book, which made life in the wild seem just as thrilling as other recent blockbusters. In comparison, Tarzan’s jungle comes across tame.
Director David Yates and screenwriters Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) can’t crack the code. Instead they tell a disjointed story that desperately needed some excitement that falls flat.
This was one of the few cases where the decision not to tell an origin tale backfires. The filmmakers approach it like everyone is already familiar with Tarzan. It’s not like every five years another studio is taking a crack at jumpstarting the Tarzan franchise. Flashbacks are used to fill in the narrative gaps, but only make the main story more confusing.
Yates, who directed the final four installments of the Harry Potter saga, is well versed in staging stunning sequences. Most of those come with Tarzan’s interactions with animals in the jungle. The cinematograph is top notch. The Congo is a land ripe for exploration that doesn’t need fancy camera tricks or effects to make breathtaking. Yates can’t carry that same sense of sweeping majesty to the fights no matter how much slo-mo he utilizes.
As ripped as he’s shredded his body, Skarsgard lacks the presence or charisma to play Tarzan. He’s along for the ride, but never takes control of the film. He’s too reserved and can’t find that next level to unleash his inner wild man ala Hugh Jackman’s breakout role in the first X-Men film.
With Tarzan underwhelming, the burden falls on Robbie and Jackson. Robbie probably is too enthusiastic given her underwritten ‘smile and wait to be rescued’ role. Jackson has a greater task as comic relief and Tarzan’s lone effective ally, but he provides the film some stability and moments of entertainment.
Christoph Waltz is still stuck playing the same iconic character that won him a Best Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds. Ron seems more like a nuisance amazingly adept at using rosary beads as a weapon. That Ron proves such a challenge for Tarzan doesn’t help paint our hero’s credibility.
Even with its flaws, there’s a niche old school audience with a love of serials that will happily embrace Legend of Tarzan. Maybe there’s still a way to make Tarzan relevant for future generations. What is clear is Legend of Tarzan isn’t that film.
Rating: 3 out of 10
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures