The Legend of Tarzan was yet another attempt to give new life to an old story, seeming all too much like another one of those incessant live-action remakes of classic Disney movies.
Surprisingly, it really wasn’t.
While there’s no doubt it leaned heavily on the wealth of source material available, The Legend of Tarzan genuinely tried to do something new with the character in the hopes of making him a hero for a new generation.
A royal (and not entirely well-intended) invitation to return to the jungles of the Congo begins an adventure that takes Tarzan – A.K.A. John Clayton III – (Alexander Skarsgård), his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and their new friend, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) across the jungles in an attempt to free hundreds of kidnapped slaves and stop the evil Léon Rom from exploiting both the land and its people.
On paper, it seems like a well-thought out adventure story – with the added supplement of some actual historical basis, with both Jackson and Waltz’s characters based on historical figures – but unfortunately, that’s as interesting as it gets.
Throughout the movie, we’re presented with important moments of Tarzan’s young life by way of flashbacks, which were done remarkably deftly, triggering small mental comparisons with the movie’s beloved Disney counterpart while simultaneously setting this movie apart. A single shot of the forgotten cabin in the trees is enough for you to hear a now-decades-old echo of Phil Collins, but the updated, life-like visuals more than set this modern rehash apart.
Therein lies the movie’s main issue. It’s constantly competing with it’s better-known cousin, and while a handful of impressively rendered CGI animals may seem to give this version an edge, it seems to fall short somewhere in the telling of its homecoming story.
The Legend of Tarzan suffers from inconsistent pacing and a fair few moments in which you have to reassess the rules you thought the movie had already established. On the one hand, we have a mostly sound realistic take on the story, and on the other, we have a human being walking away from being mauled by an ape with nothing more than a nasty bite: no bruising, no broken bones, and no credit for realism. In the course of a matter of seconds, it undoes all its own hard work in grounding the audience.
Another of the illusion-shattering offenders is the extensive use of poor green-screen CGI. There’s hardly a single scene in the movie’s entire run-time that isn’t plagued by backdrops that may as well have been painted by the set-designer’s 12-year old daughter, and it drags the viewer decidedly away from any sense of immersion when the characters stand debating some far-off point on the extremely obvious CG landscape.
While the movie suffers somewhat visually, its design isn’t totally irredeemable. The atmospheric sounds of the jungle play out like a lullaby in the background, and the array of animal noises used all ring true (to an untrained ear, at least).
There’s also the matter of Skarsgård’s performance. Physically, it’s hard to think of anyone better suited to the role, and Skarsgård makes sure we don’t forget it by delivering an outstanding performance as the ape-man. Despite his years in civilisation, Tarzan has retained a slight bestial edge, and that side comes out the very second that Jane is threatened, most notably on display during the brutal and well-executed action sequences. There are a few delightful nuances to the actor’s performance that make for incredible viewing, but his hard work is let down by poor writing. While the movie’s attempts at humour were admittedly funny at times, every joke cracked seemed poorly-timed and incredibly out-of-place in this gritty jungle adventure.
Margot Robbie’s performance as Jane is little more than an annoyance, and I found myself wondering at the casting. While Robbie has proved her ability to act in recent years, she’s wasted as the damsel-in-distress spent helplessly obeying Rom and his cronies, waiting for her saviour to swing in and free her. It’s a role that almost anyone could have filled, and probably been less conspicuous in the doing.
Christoph Waltz is another brilliant actor wasted as a generic villain. He’s got the customary, freshly pressed, spotless white suit (even in the middle of the jungle), the well-trimmed moustache, and the calm, confident manner that has since become synonymous with Waltz’s name. He also has a super-strong killer rosary, often used to strangulate or otherwise threaten those who stand in his way. It’s one of the movie’s stranger, more whimsical features (which is saying a lot when you considered all the vine-swinging, ape-fighting and bullet-dodging). Rom’s motivations seem clear until the movie’s final act, when the limping narrative simply crumbles from within.
Despite its first two-thirds being mostly solid, The Legend of Tarzan’s final scenes depict a large battle between the Belgian forces (sort of) led by Rom, and Tarzan, the natives, and their many animal friends. The movie had a sizeable budget, which means it wouldn’t be complete without a big action set piece, but an endless herd of wildebeest destroying buildings while Samuel L. Jackson mounts a Maxim 1895 machine gun was way, way more than anyone could have ever wanted. It’s a bizarre choice to round the movie out, leading to an unsatisfying conclusion with a pretty by-the-numbers ending.
That’s isn’t to say that the rest of the narrative was without its issues. One of the more insensitive choices (other than the whole White-saviour story in general) was the decision to have Mbonga’s (Djimon Hounsou) tribe painted white in order to adequately dehumanise them, marking them as the “Bad Africans” – not to mention Mbonga himself, who looks something like a reject from a fan-made Black Panther movie. There’s also the outlandishly clichéd forced dinner date between Rom and Jane, complete with unsettling rapey vibes and exposition dump, just to highlight how perfectly despicable Rom is.
It seems that for everything The Legend of Tarzan has going for it, it has an equally unimpressive counterpoint; the CGI, the humour, the actors’ performances, the writing, the action sequences – none are safe from the strange, almost purposeful yin/yang that exists in this identity crisis of a movie. Ultimately, though, it’s a mostly beautiful action adventure that carries a fair bit of emotional weight through the murky waters of its socially conscious subject material. Yes, the result is somewhat problematic, but it makes for an entertaining watch.
Summary: If you like animals, hate slavery and don’t mind ignoring a few mediocre performances and some out-of-place dialogue, then you’re in for a treat. If you’re one to get caught up in the specifics of logic and realism, you might struggle.