Tarzan—a name synonymous with vine-swinging and Jane-swooning—is once again rebooted for another generation. Except, this time he’s the superhero who hates all things slavery and colonialism. I can’t say I blame him, but after the fifth action sequence chock full of CGI and dispatching baddies, it was clear that this isn’t the Tarzan of yesteryear. Instead, he’s the one burdened by big studio budgets and franchise (brand) representation. The pulpy Edgar Rice Burroughs novels are gone in favor of a revenge plot ripped straight from comic books with The Legend of Tarzan. Call him Captain Congo. That’s a better fit.
It’s been a couple of years since Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) left the jungle in a search to reclaim his namesake, Greystoke, in London. With news that slavery is running rampant in the Congo due to the greedy monarch who overrules it, the titular hero sets out on a journey to put a stop to it. Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), the second-hand man to the monarch, has also brokered a deal with a local tribe leader to bring Tarzan to him (he killed the leader’s son) in exchange for precious diamonds exclusive to his tribe’s settlement. Now, Tarzan, Jane (Margot Robbie) and American Doctor George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) must band together to fight Rom.
What’s odd about The Legend of Tarzan is that not only is it tonally inconsistent, it’s aesthetically inconsistent to the point where it becomes distracting. Director David Yates, who bolstered the last couple of Harry Potter films with a great eye for visuals, seems completely lost amidst the location shooting and studio lot backgrounds. We see tons of scenes in which Tarzan and the gang run through actual jungle-like locations before being swept away to something completely artificial. The difference is jarring, unpleasant, and once again subscribing to the modern-day belief that all action must be digitally rendered and carried out. For $180 million, this trip can be a real eyesore.
As for the tone, let me give you a little background: After Jane is kidnapped by Rom post-scuffle, Dr. Williams and Tarzan go on the hunt for reinforcements in the form of the ape man’s old primate friends. Multiple jokes are made at the behest of Tarzan being beaten up by the lead gorilla. There’s even a gag centered around Dr. Williams refusing to lick the balls of said gorilla. The cheeky humor makes the leaden drama seem all the more heavier. It’s almost exactly why the Marvel Cinematic Universe can seem so inconsequential; every touching or drama-laden moment needs to be enlightened for the audience to keep grooving with the damn thing.
Even the actors get the short shift here. Skarsgård is a great fit to play Tarzan, a character that if you’re too primal doesn’t work, and if you’re too human doesn’t work either. Robbie’s Jane is presented as the anti-damsel in distress, which works in the movie’s favor, but every single time she holds her own, Tarzan ends up swooping in to save the day. Christoph Waltz’s Rom is exactly like every other Christoph Waltz character you’ve seen him play before. The brains of the villain outweigh his physical strength, which more or less is the downfall of his character. Samuel L. Jackson gets the shortest end of the stick as Dr. Williams, a man clearly burdened with the fact that his home supports slavery so he must help those trying to abolish it. The jokey sidekick role is milked for all its worth by Jackson, but even he can’t enliven a character cheaply put in there for comedic measure.
Unfortunately, it also seems as if The Legend of Tarzan suffers from the creators not knowing exactly what kind of movie it should be. Should it be an action-a-minute epic? How about throwing in some messages about the current state of the African jungle in the age of illegal hunting? Or how about it being a straight-up romance? What we get is something cobbled together by a committee—earnest and admirable but flaccid in execution. Points for not being an origin story, though!