The Legend of Tarzan (2016) / Action-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue
Running Time: 109 min.

Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou
Small role: Jim Broadbent, Ben Chaplin
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: Craig Brewer, Adam Cozad

Review published July 5, 2016

Based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alexander Skarsgard (Zoolander 2, Hidden) stars as John Clayton III of Greystoke Manor, an earl living comfortably in London during the Victorian Era, whose past has made him something of a legend, where he was orphaned and raised by apes until adulthood.  Margot Robbie (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Focus) plays his wife Jane, who was once saved by Tarzan while she was exploring the jungles of the Congo, soon entering into a steamy relationship with the feral man who would soon come to learn the customs and language of a proper English gentleman, abandoning his former life. 

Christoph Waltz (Spectre, Big Eyes) emerges as the main baddie, playing Captain Leon Rom, an emissary from the floundering Belgian regime who has been sent to the Congo in the late 19th Century in order to propagate, by any means necessary, the extraction of valuable diamonds from the mostly tribal lands, which they've also sought to colonize for further exploitation.  Chief Mbonga (Hounsou, Furious 7), one of the powerful heads of those tribes, agrees to give Rom the riches he's seeking if the Belgian is able to secure his nemesis, the relocated Tarzan, to him.  To fulfill his part of the bargain, Rom entices Clayton to return to his former stomping grounds, ostensibly for humanitarian purposes.  In tow are Jane and a U.S. envoy to the region named George Washington Williams (Jackson, The Hateful Eight) out to thwart what he feels is the continued enslavement of Africans of the region.  When Rom kidnaps Jane in order to bring Clayton out to the open, the latter finds himself having to use his old skills of the jungle to bring down powerful forces seeking to upend all that he has come to hold dear in this world.

David Yates (The Girl in the Cafe), the director of the critically and commercially successful final four Harry Potter films, helms this would-be new franchise, though with less successful results.  Although Tarzan has been made many times before in a variety of formats, this one promises to be the biggest budgeted extravaganza yet, with vivid, realistic digital environs and fully CG animal characters, and plenty of costumes and effects explosions.  Some of the references are a bit meta for old-school Tarzan fans (the Tarzan yell and the "Me Tarzan, you Jane" references are tossed in with knowing quips), but Legend of Tarzan is looking for a new generation of fans to draw in, so this is more of a modern-leaning reboot.  The biggest trouble in gaining that younger audience comes from premise fatigue, as just within one year of the release of the film, we've already had boys raised in the wild in a number of movies like The Jungle Book and The Good Dinosaur, and will be featured again in the upcoming remake of Pete's Dragon.  The makers of the film attempt to sidestep this problem by concentrating more on the Clayton character as an adult, with only brief flashbacks to his early days being reared by a family of gorillas and his being trained to be in harmony of their ways of life. 

Skarsgard is a bit of a blank as Tarzan, offering an insanely chiseled body (despite being over a decade removed from his jungle "gym") and handsome physical presence, but doing very little in the charisma department to make him stand out among the many who've played the titular character since the silent era of Hollywood.  Robbie is mostly relegated to being mere eye candy in various states of bondage, and the perpetual damsel in distress, despite her protestations that she's more than that that to her captor, She gets a couple of perfunctory scenes in which she attempts to be more aggressive and clever than she usually has been in the past to try to stave off feminist criticisms.  Jackson fares a little better in a role that allows him to give the film a modicum of comic relief, kick some butt, as well as to also stave off criticisms of racial stereotypes that have plagued previous incarnations of Tarzan on the screen.  Waltz, while not a detriment in the role, continues to prove my assertion that no one has been able to capitalize on his strengths as an actor outside of Quentin Tarantino.  He's only some facial hair away from being the kind of moustache-twirling villain that has been a staple of such films since Tarzan first appeared on a big screen in his heyday.

But perhaps the biggest liability of The Legend of Tarzan lies in its script, or, at least, how it has been used during the production.  There's very little build-up of the Clayton/Tarzan character to make us care for him, and as we already know he is Tarzan, the ambiguity that the early scenes of the film's strives for as to whether Clayton is indeed the legend that has grown about him since his absence from the jungle is never really in doubt.  When we finally see the character grab a vine and swing through the jungle (somehow, each vine can swing its rider about a half-mile at a time), we should be digging our fingers into our armrests in exhilaration and nervousness, but the story never quite strives for trying to induce awe so much as try to build a generic nature vs. industry plotline for Tarzan to eventually become the savior of the animals and native peoples of Africa in the face of those who seek to exploit or exterminate them.  Had this been the main theme of the picture, perhaps we could give the film credit for trying to deliver an important message or discussion-worthy topic underneath it all, but the makers of The Legend of Tarzan merely see the ecological conflicts as something to bring forth Tarzan to action and an easy means to be on his side, and little more than that.

Although all of the elements are here for a rip-roaring adventure, the uninspiring direction by Yates, the rather pedestrian script from Brewer and Cozad, and a rather un-charismatic lead performer in Skarsgard relegate The Legend of Tarzan to the kinds of forgettable spectacle features that summer movie releases are already chock full of at the multiplex, much in the way that old-timey reboots that were popular in the mid-20th Century that failed to connect with today's audiences (see Disney's attempt at another Edgar Rice Burroughs property, John Carter, or Tim Burton's take on The Lone Ranger).  Instead of a new, fresh take, we get merely an update to make Tarzan just as dull a character as that which we would get from every other blockbuster effort of 2016.  Despite lots of money splashed across the screen, Tarzan doesn't manage to proverbially swing into fast-paced action, content to climb a tree and sit there, expecting the lush environments and CG animal forms captivate us enough to look beyond just another day in the jungle.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo