Film Review – The Legend of Tarzan
The Legend of Tarzan
The Legend of Tarzan (2016) makes the grievous error of trying to expand on an origin story while assuming the audience doesn’t know what that origin is. It tries to tell multiple storylines, none very well. David Yates directs Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad’s screenplay like a book report by a student ill prepared to present it (“And this happened, and then this happened, oh but wait this happened before that, ok let me try this again…”).
The film opens with the well-known hero, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) already out of the African jungle and settling on an aristocratic life in England. Adopting the name “John Clayton,” Tarzan looks forward to married life alongside his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). Through some political circumstance too convoluted (and boring) to get into, Tarzan and Jane return to the jungle with the intention of Tarzan working as a trade emissary. Tagging along is George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) with his trusty rifle and comedic quips. Little does the group realize that things are much more dangerous than they thought. Also lurking in the jungle is Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) a Belgian mercenary whose greed has made Tarzan his primary target.
Does this sound remotely interesting? In a time where modern remakes/reboots look to bring new life to old properties, Yates and his production has created one of the most humdrum blockbusters of the summer. This was a lifeless, limp action adventure. Yates strips the narrative down both in tone and color palette. The visuals have a washed out look, and in certain sequences the color is so faded that the imagery looks nearly black and white. Fight scenes go from hyperkinetic to extreme slow motion, taking a page out of Zack Snyder’s handbook. For a movie that centers on Tarzan returning to his roots and reclaiming his animalistic lifestyle, it takes nearly half of the runtime for him to get back to his old stomping grounds.
It seems the filmmakers realized the thinness of the main plot. To remedy this, a number of flashbacks are inserted depicting Tarzan’s youth, the death of his parents, his upbringing amongst a family of gorillas, and his early romance with Jane. These flashbacks happen constantly, and slams the breaks on the pacing. Every single time the editing jumps into a flashback, it derails the narrative flow because we know where everything is heading. We don’t care about Tarzan and Jane’s flirtations because it’s already been established that they fall in love and move to England. There’s no suspense because we already know Tarzan is going to survive years later. It’s lazy storytelling, done only to get audiences comfortable with Tarzan’s origin. If there’s so much concern about telling Tarzan’s early life, why didn’t they just focus on that?
There is a great cast here, and it’s a shame their talents go to waste. Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Watlz, and Djimon Hounsou are all well established actors capable of provided strong performances. But the writing does not give them enough to make their characters three-dimensional. Christoph Waltz is coming dangerously close to falling into a typecasting trap. He’s played the villain so often that he’s becoming a parody of himself. We get bits and pieces of Jackson’s character, but his impression is largely due to Jackson’s charm and screen presence. He almost makes the character work through chemistry alone. Margot Robbie tries her best not to be a damsel in distress (her character even mentions it at one point), but once we step back we realize that’s exactly the role she’s playing. The second half is nothing but an extended chase sequence as Tarzan and Williams try to rescue Jane from Rom’s dastardly clutches.
Alexander Skarsgard is miscast in the lead role. He certainly looks the part. With his long hair and ripped muscles, Skarsgard looks like a good Tarzan. In scenes where Tarzan swings across the vines, the computer imagery captures him moving with weight and obvious athletic ability. Skarsgard encompasses the right physicality, but his performance is dull, too straightforward. He plays Tarzan with one look, and it’s morose. There’s no levity there, no spark to help draw us in. Compare his performance to Jackson’s, and you can see the contrast between an actor who has charm and grace and another who’s simply going through the motions. I’m sure Skarsgard is a fine actor, but Yates does not direct a good performance out of him. It’s too bad that a character whose name is in the title ends up being the one who drags things down.
I don’t hate The Legend of Tarzan, it’s that there’s nothing here. It’s empty space, a forgettable blockbuster that’s already starting to fade from memory. Sure, there are some nice action set pieces and the CGI animals are well rendered, but that’s of little consequence if the story and characters aren’t there as well.