“He’s Tarzan. You’re Jane. He’ll come for you.”
According to IMDb, there are over 200 movies with “Tarzan” in the title. And that’s not counting The Legend of Tarzan, the latest film from director David Yates (the last four Harry Potter films, the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). Needless to say, few have clamored for another. Nothing against the man raised by gorillas, but the popular Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character is pretty well played out by now. There’s hardly anything new to add to the mythology, unless you want to completely change the character beyond recognition, and that’s the biggest challenge Yates faces. For all the technological advancements made available since Tarzan’s last big screen hurrah, there’s not enough dimensions, personality and intrigue brought to the character to make it really matter. But to be perfectly blunt, he’s always been a kinda boring character. He’s an animal in a human’s body; that’s it, more or less. In a time when movies are becoming more sterile than ever, this one lacks enough humanity to make a difference.
Unlike Guy Ritchie’s recent Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, or, more notably, Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Legend of Tarzan lacks a rejuvenated pulse. It’s quite possibly the grittiest and darkest Tarzan movie to date, sure. But it’s still playing the same chords. The characterizations are flat, the energy is low and, worse of all, the premise has lost its novelty. Besides a few detail changes and some stronger attention to violence, it’s simply going through-the-motions, and not in any particularly interesting or new way. Perhaps some will like the mix of old-school and new-age, but it never quite realizes its full potential. And while the environments, a mix of real life and green-screen CG, are bountiful and sometimes quite beautiful, they never get their full on-screen justice. It’s a dreary, menacing take on the character, but it’s also a rather monotonous one. It’s too thought-out to be called uninspired, but it’s also too generic to make an impression. Ultimately, it’s a pretty middle-ground movie for the branch-swinger, and nothing to get wild about. Man, where’s Phil Collins when you need him?
Similar to the approach taken by Zack Snyder in Man of Steel, Yates’ film bounces between flashbacks of Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), the Ape Man raised since infancy in the jungles of Africa, and John Clayton III, the civilized gentleman whom left the jungle nearly a decade ago to live with Jane (Margot Robbie), the woman he loves, in the heart of England. Neither are made particularly interesting. Tarzan’s backstory is scattered and disorganized, only made clear to those whom know the character well. Clayton, meanwhile, is an interesting path to take, ripe to explore the inherently primitive nature of man in a (literally) nature vs. nurture sorta way, but one that falls victim to a generic, predictable arc.
Yates’ film takes the familiar path towards exploring Clayton/Tarzan’s true sense of self under extreme circumstances. When Jane is kidnapped by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a Belgian soldier hoping to bring Tarzan to his death in order to make a name for himself, our titular protagonist, guided by his trust American ally-of-sorts, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), his crusading colleague/exposition deliver/comic relief, must rediscover his barbaric past, must separate himself from his civilized manner in order to reconnect with his wild side, if he truly wants to save his wife. They say you can take the man of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the man. That’s the general direction Yates wants to take his next blockbuster, and it’s about as tame as you’d expect and simplistic as you’d fear.
Quite frankly, it’s almost impossible to connect with The Legend of Tarzan on an emotional level. Although it’s packed with a nice studio sheen (though you’d expect that from a $160 million price tag, no?), it’s simply an unmoving, disinteresting flatline from beginning-to-end. Skarsgård is positively charisma-less in the lead role, providing little more than a nice pair of pecks and a genuinely attractive figure to present on numerous occasions. Waltz, meanwhile, is reduced to the most generic mustache-twirling villain he’s played to date, proving once-and-for-all that it’s time for Hollywood to pick a new actor for these kinds of on-screen baddies. I mean, Waltz can practically play this kind of role in his sleep. It comes across like a retreat of all the antagonists we’ve seen him from him to date, including the ones seen in Inglorious Basterds, Spectre, Big Eyes, Epic, Water for Elephants and The Green Hornet, simply to name a few, and it doesn’t give him anything interesting to dig his teeth into. Likewise, Robbie is similarly wasted, made to be little more than a literal plain Jane damsel-in-distress. C’mon! We’re in the 21st century, Hollywood. Have we really not advanced our story conflicts past Dudley Do-Right shorts? At least Jackson, while often overused, gets to have some fun with his role, not to mention some pretty sufficient screen time too. He doesn’t offer much, but what he can provide is appreciated.
That’s because The Legend of Tarzan is often an unbearably by-the-numbers action-adventure. Perhaps, like I said before, it’s going for a old-school vibe, or maybe there’s no way to go beyond such mechanics when making a Tarzan movie. Maybe Yates lost his way making this one work. Whatever reason, what we’re stuck with is a predictable, uninspired mess of a film. But it’s not all bad, I guess. The special effects, beyond a few rushed ones, are often pretty good — especially with the CG apes and gorillas. And when Yates’ film does try to settle down and provide some soft character moments, it’s nice in a sorta understated kinda way. As understated as this clunky blockbuster can be, at least. Flashbacks with Jane and Tarzan meeting for the first time, the demise of Tarzan’s parents and, later, Tarzan grieving over the lost of someone he loves are effective in their brief moments, but they’re often too short and few-and-far-between to really matter. It’s evident this film is stuck in second-gear, rattling around in cruise control as it makes it way to its expected destination. It never feels like anyone’s heart is really invested, or that anyone feels deeply for the material. There’s a stiff professionalism that’s simply tedious. It’s almost appropriately a primitive film, but for all the wrong reasons.
The Legend of Tarzan is a cumbersome bore, without any real signs of imagination or inspiration throughout. In a time where studio films need to justify their existence more than ever, Yates’ latest is a stubbornly familiar piece of work, one without any desire to shake up the story or provide anything interesting with the character. It feels stale before it even begins, and that’s never really a good sign. Can a good Tarzan movie exist today? Nothing’s impossible, but this film was certainly not it. Domesticated when it should be loose, static when it should be ferocious and disingenuous when it should be proud of itself, Yates’ latest proves maybe the world of Hogwarts is where he’ll need to stay for a little bit. It’s a jungle out there at the movies, and his newest film isn’t nearly strong enough to stand its ground. Tarzan might be a legend, but he’s no longer the lord of the jungle. That’s for sure.