Despite leading off with a confounding amount of preface, considering this is a movie about a guy who yells and swings from trees, “The Legend of Tarzan” begins with promise. Excellent actors enter from stages left and right, the cinematography is fairly pleasing and Tarzan is no longer a hooting maniac, but a somber immigrant of time and progress—interesting enough. That was my first impression, before I got to know the film.
We’re introduced to a Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) that has assimilated to “civilized” culture—he speaks perfect English and is clothed like a Dickensian hero. He hasn’t totally forsaken his ways, however, as he still drinks the yolk from eggs, among other eccentricities–I desperately yearned for a scene at a diner, where a waitress would ask, “how would you like your eggs,” and he’d reply, “with a straw.” Since Tarzan’s discovery, he has become something of a celebrity, or legend, some might say. Jane (Margo Robbie), of “me Tarzan, you Jane” fame, is his bride. In other words, Tarzan’s not doing so bad. Meanwhile, the nefarious Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is shaking hands with a very dangerous skeleton in Tarzan’s closet. This pact results in Tarzan shedding his Victorian get-up and returning to his natural habitat of the Congo, but not without Samuel L. Jackson to lighten the mood.
Any potential established by the film’s first 15 minutes is immediately doused by the following 94. It becomes apparent with increasing clarity that Tarzan is not meant for live-action, or not in this manner, at least. The shifts in tone are jarring and plentiful—from a grievous shot of slaves chained by the neck to an absurd sequence where boars run through a cement building on command. And no filmmaker, alive or dead, could make a grown man getting on all fours and rubbing his head against a puma anything but ludicrous.
Skarsgard’s interpretation of an ape man boils down to looking perceptually disinterested and occasionally dumbfounded, with just a dash of being recently lobotomized. The script does him no favors, utilizing the character of Tarzan as an empty vessel for heroism. There is, however, a crumb of a character arc, which essentially results in the realization of “I shouldn’t have done that one thing”—the potency of this realization relies entirely on a character almost totally absent from the film. On the upside, the film is armed with two of the most consistently entertaining actors working today: Jackson and Waltz. If ever there was a time to ham it up, it is here, but both actors are kept relatively in check, sadly.
The director — David Yates — directed a handful of the Harry Potter films, renowned for their sense of majesty and wonder. Nothing of the sort is found here. When Tarzan finally rips off his linen chains, jumps on a vine and the thumping soundtrack plays, there is little to no satisfaction. Even 2013’s horrendous The Lone Ranger extracted some glee when the William Tell Overture finally kicked in.
On the intelligence spectrum, the apes in this film exist somewhere between Donkey Kong and your standard chimp—cognizant enough to raise a human child, but not quite able to drive a kart. I’d say the film itself is somewhere in that range, as well.
2 out of 5 stars