Never before have I experienced a Hollywood blockbuster as uncomfortable in its own skin as Warner Brothers’ The Legend of Tarzan. In much the same way that this rendition of the Lord of the Apes would rather be referred to by his British name ‘John Clayton’ rather than his more well-known one, so too does this movie cower from its own legacy, attempting in vain to mask its true identity as just another dreary, CGI-fueled franchise cash-grab.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan story was published in a pulp magazine in 1912, and the vine-swinging Viscount of Greystoke began appearing in silent movies shortly thereafter. A sense of lurid adventure and breezy fun has been a key tenant to the character for over one hundred years of screen presence, with his last major appearance in Disney Animation Studios’ 1999 reimagining fitting perfectly into the spirit of Burroughs’ initial vision, while injecting modern flair (for the time, that is — no offense to Rosie O’Donnell and Phil Collins). It seems that out of fear of seeming as derivative as every other Hollywood blockbuster to come out this summer, the execs behind this film took steps to drain away much of what made these stories so compelling, without coming up with a satisfying alternative.
Pulpy imagery has some presence, as apparent in the opening sequence which pits cartoonishly evil colonialists against body-painted Congolese warriors who appear straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet the movie is afraid to commit to pulp in spirit, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of just being fun. In its attempts to distinguish itself from past iterations of the character, The Legend of Tarzan swings for a more grandiose, historical period-piece feel, with traditional adventure elements peppered far too conservatively throughout. Action sequences are surprisingly short, lacking in creativity and dependent on computer-generated animals and jungles that don’t hold a candle to The Jungle Book or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in terms of impressiveness.
Instead, the focus ultimately rests on slower, dialogue-focused scenes that try their best to explore the deeper psychology of its characters. Not only does this sluggish pacing not gel well with the sudden bursts of action, but the dirty little secret that becomes far less secret and a lot more dirty the longer the movie goes on, is that these characters don’t have enough to them to warrant such a character-focused approach. Though to Warner Bros’ credit, there are early attempts to make him a more well-realized version than the one-not “me Tarzan” persona that we already know and that the Disney version did very little to expand.
This Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard, who you may know from some much better films) begins in London, having already left his home in the Congo behind, become a globally famous figure and married Jane. Presenting Tarzan as a celebrity within his own story is an inspired decision and one that is well-realized in the first act. There are hints of legitimate chemistry between him and Jane (Margot Robbie), but the real promise lies with a Tarzan who is conflicted by his own identity, unsure whether to embrace his ‘legend’ as half-ape, or vanish into the undifferentiated crowd of humanity. This is maybe the most exciting direction they could have possibly taken him… if they had actually taken him there.
Instead, once he, Jane and American Civil War veteran George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) set off for the Congo in an attempt to free former friends of Tarzan from a slave-trading, resource-stealing operation overseen by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), the screenplay quickly drops any and all character development, hoping that what we saw in the first third will suffice. It doesn’t.
Skarsgard wonderfully embodies Tarzan on a physical level, but the quiet self-seriousness forced upon him by the material lends itself incredibly poorly to his interplay with his supporting cast. Samuel L. Jackson is here cast as a kind of comic relief sidekick to Tarzan’s exploits, which works in spurts, but Skarsgard never plays off of that humor in any rewarding way. Likewise, the romantic moments have Robbie doing all the heavy-lifting, as Skarsgard often seems hilariously indifferent to her. Returning once again to the particularly successful iteration of Tarzan that Disney created, the animalistic curiousness that actually allowed for some charisma from the character is nowhere to be found in this movie, rendering Tarzan the same kind of bland, brooding, humorless blob as the same studios’ DC superheroes. It makes one question the ‘Legend’ of it all.
Warner Bros’ fear of negative reception strikes again in its well-intentioned but thin handling of of race and gender issues. Jane need not come along to the Congo for any discernible reason, except that you can’t have a movie called ‘Tarzan’ without a character called ‘Jane’ tagging along, and you also can’t make a blockbuster without an attractive lady in it. The problem is, once they insert her awkwardly in the story, they struggle pretty painfully to find anything important for her to do. They imprison her to give her a fairly engaging scene alongside another functional but slightly wasted Christoph Waltz role. But then, likely out of preemptive anxiety of being accused of turning Jane into a helpless ‘damsel’, the filmmakers turn her into Katniss for a hot second so she can escape (‘see, we are pro-women!’ yells Warner Brothers), before she then does nothing else of note for the remainder of the adventure.
A similar pointlessness lingers around Samuel L. Jackson, whose inclusion seems less a question of genuine necessity to the story (which isn’t to say he doesn’t do a good job, as he alone allows for the film’s few genuine laughs) than an awkward, pointed attempt to stymie claims of racist overtones. After all, the narrative in this movie is essentially a white guy coming in to the Congo to save apparently-helpless African natives from being sold as slaves. Unfortunately, having an African American (even one as badass as Jackson) fighting alongside Tarzan does little to negate the uneasy imagery of the natives, who are either war-ready ‘savages’ (lead by Djimon Hounsou, who does a reliably great job with, as usual, very little screen time) or those of the carefree, dancing variety.
Though the intentions of the studio are no-doubt pure, trying to hide the innately misogynistic/racist undertones (that I suppose are bound to come from a Tarzan story) behind calculated casting decisions incidentally makes its anachronistic, old-fashioned worldview even more pronounced. It doesn’t help that neither Jackson nor Robbie, for all the expressiveness they add to the movie, act nor sound like they are in the 1880s. They sound like they’re in any other modern-day blockbuster.
Which is exactly what the Legend of Tarzan is, at the end of the day. Warner Brothers has plucked Tarzan from his pulpy origins and placed him in a box alongside every other CGI-laden Hollywood spectacular of the last decade. The studio does not want you to feel like it’s mining cinema’s past for precious diamonds, and in a way it doesn’t want to do it either. This feels like the kind of movie where even the filmmakers feel dirty about what they are up to, so it seeks a purer, fresher identity for itself. However, choosing to focus more on its thin characters than on its thin action sequences can not hide the fact that The Legend of Tarzan is just another generic Hollywood superhero movie. It just makes it an exceedingly boring one.
Score: 1.5 out of 5