Movie Review: "The Legend of Tarzan"

“Me, Tarzan. You, Jane.” It may not be the snappiest bit of dialogue ever, but it’s iconic. It is in fact so iconic that even though David Yates’ new movie, “The Legend of Tarzan,” features a Tarzan who has been in England for years, who speaks perfect English, it can’t resist offering up a spin on the dialogue where people point out to John Clayton III aka Tarzan ( Alexander Skarsgard) that he’s Tarzan and she (Margot Robbie) is Jane and he will always come for her.

In fact, these moments are some of the most interesting things the movie has to offer, but also manage to prove a disappointment. We start off with Tarzan as a legend. There have been books written about his African adventures. Children visit Greystoke in order to hear tales of him and to find out if the rumors they have heard are true. Naturally, some of the stories they have been told—that his mother was an ape—are false, but it is all there to show us just how mythic a figure he is already when the film opens.

There is a way to spin this somehow, to show the truth behind the legends, to deconstruct the character, to get at what makes him tick, but the movie opts to do none of these things. We are told he is a legend to make it clear that all the amazing stuff that he does with utter ease later is, for Tarzan, possible.

His status is what brings him back to Africa, leading a diplomatic mission to the Congo to meet representatives of the King of Belgium. His return is seen as a big win for the British government, a PR coup. Little do any of them know that it’s all a trap being masterminded by the Belgian envoy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz). Rom wants to turn Tarzan over to a local chief, Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who has a grudge against Tarzan and who will turn over diamonds to Rom in exchange for the legendary hero. Rom needs the diamonds so that he can pay for troops so that he can enslave all the locals and thereby—presumably—get more diamonds.

Convoluted? Yes, more than a little. But it all falls by the wayside quite quickly. In “Legend of Tarzan” there are no problems that Tarzan can’t fix with just a little bit of time and effort. And so, when Jane is kidnapped there is absolutely no fear that our hero won’t rescue the damsel in distress before the credits roll.

This is the film’s great shortcoming – there is never a moment when the audience believes that Tarzan might not succeed in total and complete fashion. He is never unsure of himself, never unsure of how to proceed; never without a full and complete plan. Threats, be they Rom, Mbonga, animals, or thousands of soldiers, are all momentary obstacles and easily dismissed. After all, what are soldiers when you have nearly all the animals in the jungle instantly at your beck and call.

Not quite as bad as the simplistic plot—but in no way good—are the computer graphics. Tarzan may command the animals (except for those with whom he is momentarily in a spat), but none of them look real. They all look like computer creations and their interactions with Tarzan or his friend, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), or anyone else are never quite right. The same is true of Tarzan’s vine-swinging – the quick cuts, constantly moving camera, and computer assists make it look like mediocre Hollywood magic and it is jarring enough so as to pull one out of the already lacking tale.

It isn’t only our hero who isn’t used to his fullest either. Waltz is playing a generic European baddie with no motivation other than some vague sense of power. Robbie is given little to do other than the basic damsel in distress stuff. Jackson offers little in the way of help or advice to our hero, he’s just another person Tarzan has to get through the adventure. And it goes on like that all the way down the cast list.

Perhaps this is all the point. What we are getting with “Legend of Tarzan” is not some sort of nitty-gritty very involved truth, but the smoothed out history, the story that comes 100+ years later. We are getting the legend—the myth—not the reality.

That is an interesting notion and if the movie explored the concept it could be fascinating, but it doesn’t. The smoothed-over movie we do get is uninteresting both in the story and presentation.


photo credit: Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros.

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