There's a remarkably melancholy aura that envelopes this latest incarnation of The Legend of Tarzan, a story that felt retro even when Edgar Rice Burroughs created it in 1912 with Tarzan's first appearance in a magazine called All-Story. Tarzan of the Apes, appearing in 1918 and the first of what would become a century filled with Hollywood's attempts to capture Burroughs' heroic, handsome and free-spirited man, would become a major Hollywood success and the first film in Hollywood history to gross over $1 million.
For the record, Burroughs wasn't happy with it.
I can't fathom that Burroughs would be happy with The Legend of Tarzan either, despite the fact that a visit to Burroughs' website quickly proves the estate's signing off on the film as a banner for The Legend of Tarzan greets you right away. Still, despite six-pack abs and a jungle-like stoicism, Alexander Skarsgård is more Fabio than fabulous as the free-spirited king of the jungle who is equal parts bureaucrat, he is after all John Clayton, fifth Earl of Greystoke and a wild man whose spirit can never truly be contained courtesy of a childhood being raised not just amongst but by the beasts of the African wild.
Unfortunately, that spirit IS contained in this David Yates production. Yates, perhaps best known as director of the last four Harry Potter films and the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has created a film that feels oddly and awkwardly muted despite the presence of magnificently created CGI beasts and an extraordinary jungle setting that is always beautiful to behold if never particularly captivating. Skarsgård's take on this iconic character is semi-legendary in its finest moments, a timid portrayal of a less than timid man and a portrayal woefully lacking in the, well, animal magnetism that Tarzan simply must possess if he is to convincingly win over Jane, command all the beasts of the jungle AND go completely whupass on a Belgian evildoer with a supporting army.
While far from awful, Skarsgård simply doesn't pull it off.
It seems as if Yates is trying, without success, to create a film that is both reverential toward its classical literary and Hollywood roots while also fully taking advantage of 21st century technology. The Legend of Tarzan incorporates elements of an origin story told mostly through sepia-toned flashbacks, while sticking most of Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer's (Hustle & Flow) story within the film's central framework of Clayton's hesitant return to the jungles of Africa at the request of Belgium's King Leopold, who has nearly bankrupted himself and his nation in attempting to exploit the vast resources of the Congo. Encouraged by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American agent who suspects the King's exploitation is far graver than anything being reported, Clayton returns with both Williams and his wife Jane (Margot Robbie), whom he'd courageously rescued while in Africa years earlier, in tow.
Of course, the invitation itself is a trap set by Leon Rom, King Leopold's emissary to the Congo, whose greed and narcissism is more snarky than it is the seriously menacing baddie we've come to expect from Waltz's performances. All of this leads to one white savior's larger than life efforts to rescue his beloved Jane from Rom and his beloved African nation from the grip of slave traders.
You do know where this is headed, right?
If you don't, the film's ill-conceived trailers practically give away any lingering suspense that might exist.
It's easy to understand the casting of Skarsgård, whose long flowing hair and ripped stoicism would pass for a pretty convincing king of the jungle if he didn't also have to speak along the way. Skarsgård has proven to be a more than capable supporting player in films like The Giver, Battleship and others, but his notable lack of chemistry with Margot Robbie's semi-feminist Jane and Yates's decision to rest Henry Braham's camera squarely on his face over and over again had me singing that Sara Bareilles line "Who made you the king of anything?"
Skarsgård is a capable actor, but he's simply not got enough of a range to overcome wonky direction and a script that never gives Tarzan a story that allows him to truly soar through the jungle.
Margot Robbie, soon to be seen in the far more promising Suicide Squad, seems to relish the chance to play a character where she's actually allowed to mostly leave her clothes on. It's too bad that feeble attempts at turning Jane into Tarzan's worthy partner and a feminist in her own right are sabotaged by the film's insistence on repeatedly portraying her as a damsel in distress. Despite one inspired sequence involving a ship escape and some rather horrifying hippos, Robbie's Jane is as undercooked as a white man in a cannibal's stew. Christoph Waltz has most of the film's fun as Leon Rom, though one can't escape the feeling that he's taken his breakthrough role in Inglourious Basterds and dialed it down a few notches. Samuel L. Jackson's George Washington Williams isn't given much to do, though to his credit Jackson infuses the performance with as much energy and spirit as we've come to expect from one of the hardest working men in Hollywood.
The Legend of Tarzan isn't a bad film, just a disappointingly timid one that never really comes to life despite the electrifying world in which it's set. Playing loose, incredibly loose, with historical facts about the real King Leopold, in which no real Tarzan came to the rescue, The Legend of Tarzan never comes close to creating a legendary Tarzan and instead settles for a rather amicable one.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic