There’s a great Tarzan adventure somewhere in Legend of Tarzan, but the movie is too overstuffed and rough around the edges to fly high.
The Legend of Tarzan revolves around a grown-up Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) who, some years ago, left his home in the jungles of Africa behind him – having since taken up an aristocrat’s life in England as John Clayton, 3rd Viscount Greystoke, with his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). Tarzan is then approached by one George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a U.S. Civil War veteran who wants the Lord of the Apes to accompany him to the Congo as a trade emissary of the House of Commons. However, in private, Williams informs Tarzan that his true intention is to use the Ape-Man’s fame as an means for him to investigate what’s really happening in the region of the Congo now being occupied by the forces of Belgium King Leopold II.
When Tarzan, Jane, and Williams secretly make their way into the Congo without being accompanied by the Belgium forces, it doesn’t take long for Captain Léon Rom (Christopher Waltz) – who is overseeing King Leopold’s operations there – to realize that they are (rightly) suspicious of what he and Leopold’s army are really up to: enslaving the locals and exploiting the region for its precious minerals – in particular, diamonds. With thousands of hired mercenaries on their way to the Congo to support Rom in his campaign, Tarzan, Jane, and Williams must race against time to stop the dastardly captain before his army arrives in full.
Legend of Tarzan is the latest installment in the long-running Tarzan movie franchise, as was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous stories about the Ape-Man from the early 20th century. The movie, as you would expect, attempts to update the Tarzan character and his world for the 21st century – giving Burroughs’ source material the modern big-budget tentpole treatment, complete with a cast that features several A-listers. While there are some intriguing elements in Legend of Tarzan, the movie falls short of realizing its ambitions because, taken as a whole, it’s a uneven patchwork of different revisionist approaches to the Lord of the Apes.
The Legend of Tarzan narrative – based on a script credited to Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) – feels like a mashup of two Tarzan stories: a non-linear origin story for the Ape-Man that uses the contemporary superhero origin template, and the other a buddy adventure that integrates the Lord of the Apes into a real-life historical event (George Washington Williams’ investigation of the region of the Congo controlled by King Leopold II during the late 19th century). On their own, either of these two narrative through-lines could have been developed into a satisfying central storyline – but when combined, Tarzan’s backstory is reduced to a perfunctory hero origin story, while the weighty subject matter of Williams’ narrative thread (slavery and genocide) isn’t dramatically impactful and feels tonally at odds with the buddy comedy vibe of Tarzan and Williams’ scenes together. The inclusion of subplots that include the vengeful African Chief Mbongo (Djimon Hounsou), Tarzan’s “adopted” ape brother Akut (played via motion-capture by Matt Cross), and even Tarzan and Jane’s interest in starting a family, on top of all that, further contributes to the movie’s various story threads not having enough screen time to be properly developed (as interesting as each one is on its own).
Directed by David Yates of Harry Potter fame, Legend of Tarzan is also uneven in terms of its technical construction. Yates and the film’s cinematographer Henry Braham (The Golden Compass) capture several gorgeous panoramas of actual mist-shrouded African mountains and landscapes – some of which are well-integrated with the scenery that was created on sound stages and/or during post-production, some of which are not. Similarly, there are a number of visually slick action sequences and well-staged set pieces based in the jungles of Africa in Legend of Tarzan – yet, there are also a number of sequences that either suffer from ungainly camerawork or have too much of a “green screen” look to them (the same goes for the film’s CGI animals). There are individual scenes in Legend of Tarzan that benefit from the added depth of field and immersive effect afforded by 3D – but as the movie is only partially able to weave the practical and digital elements of its settings together (especially when compared to how this year’s The Jungle Book brings its own jungle landscapes to life), 3D is not a necessity.
Alexander Skarsgård and Samuel L. Jackson anchor the proceedings in Legend of Tarzan by playing a pair of very different world-weary warriors – and though Skarsgård’s broody Tarzan is more noteworthy for his impressive chiseled physique and physical performance than his personality, Jackson makes George Washington Williams a compelling (and charismatic) hero to follow. As indicated earlier, the buddy dynamic between Tarzan and Williams is strong during their scenes together and the actors playing the characters could’ve conceivably carried the film on their own – were it not for the many story threads about Tarzan’s past, most of which aren’t fully formed in the theatrical cut of the movie. Similarly, Djimon Hounsou delivers another solid performance as the powerful leader Chief Mbongo, but he simply doesn’t have enough onscreen time to play a substantial role in the overarching narrative (beyond serving as a plot device).
Margot Robbie likewise further cements her reputation as a character actor to be reckoned with in Legend of Tarzan, through her performance as the strong-willed and adventurous Jane Porter. The problem is, this version of Jane doesn’t have a very memorable personality (especially compared to, say, the version of Jane in Disney’s animated Tarzan) beyond being “strong” – and as much as the character vocally rejects the idea that she is a “damsel”, she nonetheless spends most of the film being held captive in order to lure Tarzan out to rescue her. As for Christoph Waltz as Captain Léon Rom: he’s a satisfactory villain but doesn’t leave a strong impression, no doubt in part because the Oscar-winning Waltz has played the same off-kilter, yet sinister, antagonist in better films in the past.
There’s a great Tarzan adventure somewhere in Legend of Tarzan, but the movie is too overstuffed and rough around the edges to fly high. While the film’s efforts to deliver a more substantial tentpole featuring the Lord of the Apes (one where he’s envisioned as an anti-colonist superhero, no less) are admirable and partly successful, its story elements and technical components don’t add up to a cohesive whole. Legend of Tarzan brings to mind director Gore Verbinski’s Lone Ranger in that respect, as the pair are expensive films that attempt to modernize and deconstruct their respective properties for the new century – and though both miss their mark, Tarzan arguably comes closer than Ranger to hitting its target. Moviegoers in the mood for a film with more ambition than your average popcorn film may get added mileage from Legend of Tarzan, for that reason – but if you’re already unconvinced that a big-budget Tarzan reboot in 2016 is a good idea, Legend of Tarzan is unlikely to change your mind.
The Legend of Tarzan is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 110 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude language.
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