In an age where Hollywood has returned to just about every winning property it has in its stable in an effort to recreate past successes and stem waning ticket sales, I was surprisingly game for a new Tarzan movie. While the commercial spots did it no favors, the IMAX trailer for David Yates’ reboot, The Legend of Tarzan, teased an epic, sweeping rescue-mission romance, the kind of old-fashioned tale that just isn’t made anymore, delivered in the wrapper of a modern blockbuster. Unfortunately, the promise of a film that is equal parts deep and cinematic while remaining crowd-pleasing and action-packed has proven to be too much for The Legend of Tarzan to live up to; it is a largely uneven movie by almost every measure.
The setup is intriguing, as it is not an origin story by any means. We find Tarzan living in England with Jane, now going by John Clayton Jr., his family name. John’s days in the wild are long behind him, but his celebrity is as potent as ever, with kids and adults alike clamoring for John to regale them with stories from his previous life. John humors them begrudgingly and at his own expense; the man is perpetually haunted by the ghosts of his past. Nightmarish reflections on his birth parents’ untimely demise at the hands of apes, matched only by similar visions of his foster mother, an ape from the same troop, being murdered by humans, leaves John incredibly tortured. Where does he belong? Where do his allegiances lie? How can he reconcile these incredibly sad circumstances and move on with his civilized life when everyone he ever meets incessantly persists that he dredge them up?
It is here where Alexander Skarsgård’s quiet, towering presence is most effective. Especially when juxtaposed against Margot Robbie’s pleasant, strong-willed Jane, Skarsgård is able to convey someone who is deeply conflicted about how he should feel in just a few glances— he got out of the jungle, but is this civilized world any easier to live in? Extreme close-ups showcase the strong acting on display and quickly establish the believable love story between Tarzan and Jane without being cheesy or retreading what we already know about the character. I was all-in to explore these themes within this context. But that’s not what The Legend of Tarzan becomes.
Instead, it devolves into a half baked superhero movie with a convoluted plot and an overly one-note villain in Christoph Waltz, who essentially revives his performance from Inglorious Basterds, but without as much coherent motivation. Add to that Samuel L. Jackson, who, despite his best efforts, is a tonal misfire of a character that is intended to simultaneously provide gravitas and comic relief, but ends up being much more the latter. The digital effects, too, are hit-and-miss. A particularly important close-up featuring a CG character may look incredible, but the very next scene runs rampant with blatantly obvious green screen that reinstates any suspended disbelief. Perhaps they shouldn’t have blown so much of the digital effects budget on the ludicrous, over-the-top sequence toward the end of the movie, or they could have refocused the story on the much more interesting, pained existence of its protagonist as opposed to action-laden, uninspired threads that do little else but offer sizzle reel footage for the trailer. In either scenario, the film would not have suffered.
The Legend of Tarzan could have been a fantastic study of what it means to be a man and how to successfully conquer your past. And yet, despite strong performances and a brilliant premise, Tarzan ends up being another forgettable blockbuster. What a shame.
The Legend of Tarzan opens today in Philly area theaters.