The story of Tarzan certainly has legs. Edgar Rice Burroughs first introduced the character in 1912. In all Burroughs wrote 26 Tarzan novels. Dating back to the silent era there have been over 50 Tarzan movies. He has been featured in eight television series, seven documentaries, several comic books, a video game, and even a 1980’s pop song (if you want to count that). As I said, Tarzan certainly has legs.
While he has had a long and impressive history, is Tarzan still a bankable property? Modern moviegoers embrace some truly wacky stuff, but an ape-man who swings on vines and communicates with animals? “The Legend of Tarzan” certainly tries to bring itself into the 21st century by including topics of genocide, slavery, etc. But early box office numbers make you question its effectiveness.
“The Legend of Tarzan” is the first live action Tarzan film since 1998’s misfire “Tarzan and the Lost City”. Director David Yates of Harry Potter fame was given a $180 million budget to bring Tarzan back to the screen in this new era of visual filmmaking. From an effects perspective the film definitely brings Tarzan into a new light. Storywise it struggles to do anything significantly original or new.
Co-writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer take a serious approach to the Tarzan story which makes it an even tougher sell. It’s the 19th century and the Congo has been divided up between Belgium and England. Belgium’s King Leopold II decides to mine the resource-rich territory of its Opar diamonds to pay for his country’s significant debt. To oversee it Leopold sins his envoy Leon Rom (played by a fedora wearing moustached Christoph Waltz). In order the get the diamonds from a brutal tribe he must deliver Tarzan to the tribe’s leader (Djimon Hounsou).
Alexander Skarsgård plays Tarzan, now going by John Clayton III. He’s a celebrity in England with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) even though he languishes away from the jungle. He is convinced to go back to the Congo by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson as the film’s lone comic relief) who suspects the Belgians of enslaving the Congolese people. He reluctantly allows Jane to come along not knowing the turmoil that lies ahead.
Skarsgård, perhaps best known for his seven seasons on HBO’s “True Blood”, looks the part – flowing blonde hair, stoic manliness, and chiseled abs. But past that his performance can best be described as emotionally dry and expressionless. Margot Robbie is a different story. She is lively, authentic, and does her best to break out of the ‘damsel in distress’ role. The script doesn’t fully allow for that. It ultimately becomes another ‘Tarzan saving Jane’ story as it hops from one set piece to the next.
Yates does a good job of giving us interesting locales and some beautiful photography. The story itself doesn’t carve new ground, but it does keep your interest especially if approached lightheartedly. Many critics have sneeringly scrutinized the film with overly cynical modern sensibilities. I don’t think those criticisms holds water. The film’s faults center more around its inability to invigorate the franchise and surprise us with something fresh and new. It is far from being a horrible movie, but it’s even farther from being a great one.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS