Starring: Alexander Skarsgård (Diary of a Teenage Girl), Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), Jim Broadbent (Hot Fuzz)
Director: David Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)
Writers: Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow)
Runtime: 1 hour 50 minutes
Release Date: 1 July (US), 6 July (UK)
Did you know there have been around two hundred different films featuring Tarzan? That’s a lot of movies about a shirtless guy jumping around the jungle and yelling, but even a hundred years after Edgar Rice Burroughs created the character he remains a memorable fixture in pop culture. But with that many movies, there’s bound to be a lot of fodder in there. There are the notable favourites like the old Johnny Weissmuller films of the 30s and 40s, Christopher Lambert’s take in 1984’s Greystoke, or the animated Disney version from 1999, but then you’ve also got the infamous Tarzan, The Ape Man with Bo Derek and Miles O’Keefe or that god-awful German CG abomination from a few years ago. To stand out from the pack, The Legend of Tarzan is going to need to do something different whilst also sticking to the core of what makes the character so enduring. But unfortunately, whilst it certainly strives to do that, the execution is ultimately lacking.
Feeling in many ways like a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist, The Legend of Tarzan touches upon the character’s origin through scant flashbacks whilst mostly telling a story set after his return to civilisation. Crafting a story that places Burroughs’ character within the real-life tragedy of Belgium’s occupation of the Congo in the 1890s (Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters being real historical figures in that event), the film certainly has lofty ambitions with its strong themes of honour, freedom, racism and the balance between man and nature. However, because the film is dealing with such sensitive subject matter and takes it so seriously, it ultimately sucks a lot of the fun out of the movie. The pacing is achingly slow at points, with far more scenes dedicated to discussing trade negotiations than swinging through treetops, which is further hampered by too often taking Tarzan out of his element. For most of the movie, he’s stuck in open plains or small settlements with little opportunity to take advantage of his skill set; it’s like watching a Spider-Man movie where he’s stuck in a neighbourhood of bungalows. But even as few and far between as they are, those moments when Tarzan is actually allowed to be Tarzan give the film a huge shot of adrenaline and reminds you why this character has stood the test of time.
What really holds the film together even in its dullest moments is Alexander Skarsgård as John Clayton/Tarzan himself, not only pulling off the physicality of the Ape Man but also his demeanour and personality. Tarzan is supposed to be a man of few words who mostly communicates through body language, and though Skarsgård’s version is more sophisticated given his domestication he retains that stoic gruffness that defines the character. Jackson’s George Washington Williams makes for a great counterpoint to Skarsgård, bringing a lot of his own natural charm and humour to bounce of off Tarzan’s seriousness, but at certain points he can feel a little anachronistic; he feels so modern that, if you changed the setting to present day, you’d barely have to alter his dialogue. Djimoun Hounsou is seriously underutilised as the vengeful Mbonga, but in those few moments he creates an interesting antagonist who generates as much sympathy as he does fury. It’s with these three aforementioned characters that The Legend of Tarzan shows off a surprising degree of moral ambiguity, with both Tarzan and Williams showing regret for past actions and Mbonga’s motivation being totally understandable. I just wish this level of depth was also seen in Christoph Waltz’s character. He does a fine enough job as the villainous Leon Rom, effectively just playing the same smug bad guy he’s played in every non-Tarantino production of his, but he there’s very little more to him that that; then again, if you read into what the real Rom was known to do, Waltz’s version is practically a teddy bear. But what I’m most sad to say is that Margot Robbie’s Jane is the one that really lets the side down. The character herself isn’t greatly written, her presence in the story basically just being incentive for Tarzan to chase after Rom, but as much as Robbie tries she feels a bit miscast in the role. Her romantic chemistry with Skarsgård is passable at best, and though she claims to be no damsel she pretty much is; she does manage to escape her captors without external help, but she gets recaptured pretty much immediately anyway.
David Yates’ experience in directing action sequences has mainly consisted of teenagers pointing magic twigs at each other, so The Legend of Tarzan serves as a challenge for the veteran Harry Potter helmer. In terms of capturing Tarzan in motion swinging on vines or jumping through treetops he’s done an excellent job, but when it comes to actual fight scenes the direction becomes a lot choppier. There’s one decent hand-to-hand confrontation on a train where Tarzan single-handedly takes out a carriage full of guards, but other scenes like Tarzan’s fight with a gorilla or his confrontation with Mbonga are sloppily edited so as to be almost incomprehensible; yet another example of quick cuts and cramp camerawork ruining action. The film certainly looks nice with its sweeping cinematography and great period production design, and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score is suitably heroic enough, but there’s nothing that truly stands out on a technical level.
The Legend of Tarzan is a perfectly acceptable movie that I’m sure fans of the character will get a least a little kick out of, but considering the vast number of alternatives it’s certainly not one I see being especially remembered amongst its hundreds of brethren. I give it a lot of credit at least for attempting to do something daring with the source material, but unfortunately that braveness too often works against what the film should be. There’s simply not enough real Tarzan moments, and when the film actually remembers to have those moments it really shines. It almost makes me wish they just did a standard Tarzan origin with this cast and crew, as the potential for a great adaptation with today’s technology can be seen lurking within the story’s flashback sequences. Skarsgård’s excellent performance and its important messages ultimately make the film worth a look, but it’s certainly not a film that demands the full cinema experience; being able to take breaks might even alleviate the sluggish pacing. But even with that, I am worried for the fate of this movie at the box office. If we’re not careful, The Legend of Tarzan may become the second high-profile Edgar Rice Burroughs film to tank financially this decade…and that’s not great considering John Carter is the better movie (at least in my opinion).
FINAL VERDICT: 6/10