UK Release Date: 6th July 2016
Runtime: 110 minutes
Director: David Yates
Writer: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Casper Crump
Synopsis: Tarzan returns to the Congo with his wife, Jane, in order to investigate claims that a villainous Belgian official is enslaving and mistreating the local population.
Whether it’s through the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories, the Johnny Weissmuller movies or the 90s Disney animation, everyone has some sort of relationship with the character of Tarzan. Despite that, there has never been a genuinely excellent big screen take on the character, despite the best efforts of many filmmakers over the years. The latest to step up to the mantle is Harry Potter helmsman David Yates, boldly positioning his story years after the origin of the character and following him back into the jungle. It’s a gamble that does not pay off, creating a bland protagonist who is not believable as a vine-swinging man of the forest.
John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård), Lord Greystoke, is asked to return to the Congo with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) after receiving a diplomatic invitation from Belgium. He declines the invite, but American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson) tells him that he believes Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is enslaving the local populace. This coaxes Lord Greystoke back into the jungle, where he embraces his roots as Tarzan to expose Rom and his mistreatment of the Congolese people.
Tarzan is an inherently campy character with a silly backstory. The best takes on the story of Tarzan embrace that silliness and simply have fun. The Legend of Tarzan, however, seems to have taken its cue from the DC Extended Universe and coats its story in a veneer of grey. This is a film that takes itself and its story very seriously, refusing to go along with the traditionally campy nature of Tarzan in favour of a stony-faced and incredibly earnest tale of colonial oppression.
The overly serious storytelling is exemplified by Alexander Skarsgård’s entirely straight performance as the title character. He seldom cracks a smile in the entire movie and brings a complete and utter lack of charisma to the role, consistently being upstaged by his own abs. Margot Robbie, meanwhile, does her best with a spirited performance as Jane, but is lumbered with the damsel in distress archetype for almost the entire movie, in the hands of Christoph Waltz, who is doing the same hammy villain caricature that he can do in his sleep by now.
Yates knows his way around fantasy action sequences as a result of his work on the final installments in the Harry Potter saga. As a result, there are some standout action beats in The Legend of Tarzan that do manage to quicken the pulse even in amongst the insipid character work and constant recycling of the “Margot Robbie gets captured” story device. Unfortunately, these sequences are marred by ropey CGI effects and creature work that is incredibly disappointing just a few months after Disney changed the game with The Jungle Book.
It all comes down to tone. Yates and writing duo Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer pitch The Legend of Tarzan as a serious, straight-faced dissection of colonialism and its evils, when it should be a fun, light-hearted romp about a man who can control apes and swing from trees. With the serious tone Yates creates, the issues of a black community being rescued by the heroic white man only becomes more problematic. This film doesn’t work as a serious political argument and it definitely doesn’t work as an entertaining adventure. More of a myth than a legend.
Pop or Poop?
On paper, The Legend of Tarzan should have been a slam dunk of an adventure movie. Unfortunately, it’s a film that isn’t quite sure where to pitch itself and makes the wrong decision by featuring a moody Tarzan and a Jane whose gender politics are decades out of date.
In the right hands and with a bit of a sense of blockbuster fun, this could have been one of the more entertaining movies of the summer. Yates’ Tarzan, though, is entirely lacking in joy, and that leaves a massive void.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.