Movie Review: “The Legend of Tarzan”

Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent
David Yates

It’s been over 100 years since author Edgar Rice Burroughs published his first Tarzan novel and nearly half that long since the character was last relevant in pop culture, so it’s understandable why Warner Bros. may have thought it was a good idea to resurrect the franchise as a big summer blockbuster. Unfortunately, there’s a reason Tarzan hasn’t succeeded in recent times, and that’s because it’s a largely hokey premise that is firmly rooted in the sensibilities of a bygone era. Though director David Yates’ reboot is admirably old-fashioned in execution, a gorgeously filmed adventure movie shot with classic Hollywood grandeur, “The Legend of Tarzan®” is as soulless as the registered trademark symbol that appears on the opening title card.

Set in 1890, the film begins several years after the man formerly known as Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) left the jungles of Africa to assume his rightful position as British aristocrat John Clayton III alongside his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). But when he receives an invitation from King Leopold II of Belgium to return to the Congo as a trade emissary for the House of Commons, American statesman George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) convinces him to go in order to investigate rumors that Leopold is using slave labor to colonize the country. Upon arriving in the Congo, however, John discovers that the whole trip is a ruse devised by Leopold’s trusted advisor, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has agreed to hand John over to a vengeful chieftain (Djimon Honsou) in exchange for diamonds needed to pay off Leopold’s mounting debt. John manages to evade capture, but Jane is kidnapped in the process, prompting him to unleash the beast he’s kept contained for so long in order to rescue her.

“The Legend of Tarzan” is unnecessarily complex for what amounts to a fairly basic damsel-in-distress adventure movie, and that’s due to writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer’s decision to ground the story in actual history. King Leopold, Leon Rom and George Washington Williams are all real people, but while their inclusion is intended to legitimize Tarzan as someone who could feasibly exist within our world, it has the opposite effect. Tarzan just isn’t a very captivating hero, despite some well-meaning flashbacks that fill in the gaps of his tragic origin.

It probably doesn’t help that Alexander Skarsgård, who was an inspired choice for the title character, plays him so grim-faced that he doesn’t seem capable of emotion. Christoph Waltz is also wasted in yet another generic villain role whose most prominent attribute is the rosaries he carries around as a makeshift weapon. (Apparently, an actual whip was too on-the-nose.) Margot Robbie and Samuel L. Jackson fare a little better as the spunky Jane and John’s comic relief sidekick, respectively, but they’re trapped in a mostly humorless film that feels as dated as its white savior protagonist.

Everything about this movie is woefully undercooked, from the story, to the acting, to the special effects, which look photorealistic in some parts and unpolished in others. Even the action scenes aren’t terribly exciting; in fact, they’re so poorly edited that it seems like entire beats have been removed to save money in post-production. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was true, because “The Legend of Tarzan” – a would-be event film that happens to be pretty uneventful – has the air of a big budget movie whose studio didn’t realize its mistake until it was too late. David Yates’ work on the last four Harry Potter films proved that he could deliver spectacle without sacrificing story or character, but sadly, “The Legend of Tarzan” is such a total snoozefest that it fails on both counts.