Legend of Tarzan, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/30/16 11:23:06
Some time in the future, people—assuming such things still exist—will be sitting around playing a trivia game and one of the questions will be “In what Tarzan movie did a character ask the question “Do you want me to lick his nuts too?” My guess is that nearly all of the players will assume that it came from the 1981 version of “Tarzan the Ape Man” that tried and failed to transform the adventure classic into a soft-core skin flick vehicle for Bo Derek. They would be wrong because that line—which is as straightforward as can be and which has nothing to do with snack food of any kind—actually comes from “The Legend of Tarzan,” the latest attempt to restore the immortal Edgar Rice Burroughs character back to his former big-screen glory. This line may mark the film’s ultimate artistic nadir but it is by no mean the only low moment to be had in this lifeless spectacle that offer up the curious spectacle of a bunch of filmmakers spending untold millions of dollars to present a story that they show no demonstrable interest in telling to an audience that, unless I am reading things very badly, will probably regard it with an equal amount of disinterest.In the late 1800’s, John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), the 3rd Viscount of Greystoke—you might know him as Tarzan—has spent the last few years of his life living the aristocratic existence in London after having been raised from infancy in the jungle by an ape following the deaths of his birth parents. Although I daresay that most of us would just as soon live in comfort in Victorian-era England, especially if it meant being married to the lovely and spunky Jane Porter (Margot Robbie), John seems somewhat detached from his surroundings. However, when he receives a surprise invitation to return to the Congo Free State to tour the area as an official representative of the House of Commons, he refuses to even consider accepting it. He is finally convinced to change his mind by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a guest of the U.S. government who has been hearing rumblings about entire villages being enslaved as part of some grand diabolical scheme—by going over and by bringing Williams as his guest, John can investigate these charges himself and reveal them to the world if they prove to be true. Not surprisingly, Jane decides to go along for the ride as well—as she grew up in the area as well with her schoolteacher father, she would like to see her former home again and besides, it might be just the shot in the arm that she and her husband could use following a recent miscarriage. (If you think I dropped that particular tidbit of knowledge with a lack of finesse, wait until you see how the film handles it.)
Of course, the whole thing is little more than an elaborate ruse designed to bring John back to the Congo that has been orchestrated by Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), the personal representative of the king of Belgium, who now control much of the area and the sweet sweet resources contained within. Unfortunately, the king has overextended himself and is about to lose everything to creditors when Rom strikes a deal with a local warlord (Djimon Hounsou) that will provide him with enough diamonds to pay off the king’s obligations in exchange for John, against whom the warlord has been nursing a long-standing grudge. Rom’s initial ambush does not go quite as planned—although he and his men manage to kidnap Jane, John manages to escape and sets off in pursuit with George tagging along for the ride. As the two battle dangers from all sides—and discover that ants taste like bacon—in their pursuit of Jane, John, begins to get his jungle groove back and before long, he is once again becoming one with nature and enlisting both natives and animals to help him thwart the diabolical plans of the Belgians and rescue Jane.
As someone who has never much taken to the cheap showiness of nature (or any backlot simulacra of same), I must confess that the adventures of Tarzan have never done that much for me over the years—even as a small child, I sensed that I would have more fun sipping martinis with Nick and Nora Charles than I would swinging through the jungle with Lord Greystoke. That said, there have been Tarzan films over the years that I have enjoyed to a certain degree—I liked the early Johnny Weissmuller epics, especially “Tarzan and His Mate,” the hugely entertaining 1934 entry that raised eyebrows (among other things) then and now due to its surprisingly frank sexual content, and I have a certain fondness for “Greystoke,” the 1984 epic that took a serious and realistic approach to the material that effectively counterbalanced the film’s general lack of adventure and the miscast Christopher Lambert and Andie MacDowell (featuring Glenn Close’s voice) as Tarzan and Jane. Therefore, while I cannot deny that the idea of a Tarzan movie in this day and age seems a little silly—even a mega-budget Lone Ranger film sounds more plausible by comparison—the talents assembled here, including director David Yates (who ably directed the last four films in the Harry Potter franchise) and a screenplay co-written by Craig Brewer (the man responsible for such undeniably audacious works as “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan”) at least held out the possibility that it might turn out to be interesting after all.
Needless to say, it doesn’t take long to realize that something is not quite right with the results. The plot conceived by Brewer and Adam Cozad sounds like the basis for a reasonably exciting saga in theory but the execution is hampered by one unforced error after another, starting with the fact that it takes nearly an hour of screen time before John starts acting like Tarzan. Even then, the film seems strangely unwilling to let itself go and allow John to fully embrace his Tarzan side—this has to be the first Tarzan film that I can readily recall in which he spends nearly the entire running time going through the jungle while wearing khakis. In another mystifying move, the film chooses to present John’s backstory via a series of flashbacks that are spread out throughout the film and wind up short-circuiting whatever excitement it has managed to generate at that point. I don’t know if things would have been significantly improved if the flashback stuff had either been relegated to a prologue or discarded entirely but it certainly would have helped to improve the narrative flow.
Another problem is that even though the whole point of the movie is to witness John pressed into returning to his Tarzan side, you never really get the sense of the man embracing both nature and his primitive side. Part of this is because of Alexander Skarsgard’s oddly recessive performance as Tarzan—instead of fully throwing himself into the part, he too often seems to be approaching it from a distance and never manages to convey the notion that he is home. The other problem is that the elaborate visual effects employed to make it seem as if the actors are in the jungle are not very convincing. Oh sure, the old Tarzan films weren’t exactly bursting with verisimilitude but at least there, all of the elements—fake as they might have been—were at least all together when they were being filmed. Here, you recognize all of the individual elements but the film never quite brings them together. During the big finale in which Tarzan leads a battalion of jungle animals into battle, we see rhinos, elephants and alligators lumbering into battle but the CGI is so over-scaled that the effect is more silly than thrilling.
Perhaps realizing that the film was not quite going to turn out as they had hoped, the other actors all find their own various ways to compensate. Robbie gets a couple of amusing moments here and there but for the most part, she is just there to gawk at and her general absence from the fray during the finale is disappointing. Playing yet another oily European menace—this one clearly inspired by Bellocq from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”—Waltz just quietly and methodically chews every bit of scenery in his vicinity until the scenery eventually responds in kind. As for Jackson, I can only assume that casting him was a way of subverting the oftentimes-appalling racial elements that the “Tarzan” films have trafficked in over the decades. That sounds like a good idea but the film then screws it up by not giving him a character that has any real bearing on the proceedings. Instead, he seems to have been cast simply to add his name to lure in a bigger audience and instead of playing someone of import, his part either sees him coasting through with his usual badass schtick (such as a weird moment when he reminds Tarzan of just how famous he now is) or finds him dealing with material that comes strangely close to the kind of troublesome stuff not that dissimilar from the questionable stuff from another era—yes, he is the one who gets to deliver the aforementioned line about licking someone’s nuts.“The Legend of Tarzan” is not the worst Tarzan film by a long shot and it won’t even be the worst film that turns up at your multiplex this weekend. However, it is one of the more dispiriting ones because not only does it betray a fatal lack of understanding for a property that has served Hollywood long and well for almost as long as the cinema itself has existed, it is liable to kill any chances in the immediate future of someone coming up with a more effective one. Imagine—of all the plots, schemes and dangers that Tarzan has faced over the years, it is a mere movie—and not much of one at that—that could be the thing that brings him down once and for all.
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