Come with me to deepest darkest Africa as I see if the Lord of the Apes is still standing strong in my review of The Legend of Tarzan.
In the early part of the twentieth century Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of the world’s most prolific authors of pulp fiction. His characters have graced the screen with mostly mixed results. I’m looking at you Conan the Barbarian and John Carter of Mars! There is one however, who can truly say he has conquered the silver screen (no less than 49 times to date!) and that is Lord Greystoke himself; Tarzan. Ever since his cinematic debut in 1918 the man raised by apes and then brought back to civilisation only to return to his homeland in a series of heroic adventures has become one of the most well known stories on the planet. I would argue that only Robin Hood, Superman and Batman are really able to lay claim to having a more recognised story in modern pop culture. Ask any child what Tarzan sounds like and they will do their best impression of Johnnie Weissmuller’s classic yodelling yell. So, once again Tarzan has returned to the big screen and my only real question is why we need a retread of his origin story?
I’ll get this out of the way first: The Legend of Tarzan is obviously yet another attempt at setting up a franchise through name recognition. Unfortunately this takes a film that should have the word “romp” first and foremost in its mind and replaces that with exposition and set up. Instead of committing to doing another straight origin story or a stand alone tale this movie tries to have its jungle cake and eat it too by interspersing the origin story throughout the current adventure. Instead of using this to gradually reveal the character’s motivations or lend the movie emotional impact all this does is make it feel increasingly episodic, which is a shame as both of the stories it is trying to tell are pretty solid. Combine this with the significant lack of action throughout the run time and you have a film that makes you feel every second of its relatively short 110 minute run time. The lack of storytelling dynamism on display here also robs the few action scenes there are of any real punch. I found myself just glad for the change when they turned up, but since I was generally bored by most of what had lead up to them I didn’t really find that they grabbed me as a moment of peril, more that they were just something interesting for my eyes to look at before returning to expositionsville. The other glaring issue is that the main story is set up in the opening scene, but about two thirds of the way through the film decides that the climax the audience has been expecting it to build to is actually only a subplot. So we are left with a fairly lacklustre action scene and then hustled onwards never to have this mentioned again. Given that the main plot was the bit that seemed to have the most riding on it up until that point I found it very disappointing to have it cast aside for the big CGI finale the movie actually finishes on.
A confusing story can be bolstered by dynamic direction though, and a lot of this movie does look very impressive. David Yates, the director, is very good at giving you a sense of what sort of environment the next scene is taking place in He also gets the balance right in the action scenes too. Regularly having the camera right in the action alongside shots that help to establish who is doing what to whom and where it’s taking place. That being said if I never see another descending panning shot of an African plain, rainforest, river or town I will very likely be a happy man! Sadly the general lack of impact from the story being told means that Yates’ best efforts do little more than make you notice the efforts he is going to in order to make the film look as good as possible. In some places he is also hamstrung by some of the special effects. There are some scenes that are beautiful, where the animals that Tarzan is interacting with seem to really be there, but there are also some incredibly shoddy bits of green screen work that really stand out when you see them. I had also expected in a post Spider-Man world that the FX community would be clamouring to show of their “person swinging on rope” skills. What we are actually treated to though is some of the worst of these effects I have seen since before the first Raimi Spider-Man in 2000. Only one of these sequences looks even remotely real. Again I found myself wondering exactly why something that most people would consider one of the character’s defining traits seemed to have been rushed in favour of lots of talking?
So we come to the cast themselves. Alexander Skarsgard is physically perfect as Lord John Clayton/Tarzan. The way he looks, moves and inhabits the character is brilliant. It is easy to see the amount of work he has put into moving in a very predatory fashion. It is just a pity that the scripting doesn’t give him much to do with his character’s upper-class English Clint Eastwood voice. There are moments of humour dotted through some of his later scenes and he sells them perfectly with his deadpan delivery. It would have been nice to have more of that side of the character come out, instead of forcing him to be the mainly one note hero that he is through most of the film. Margot Robbie is suitably stunning as Jane Porter Clayton and she shows the right amount of fight for a person who has grown up dealing with the dangers of life in the Congo. Sadly she also suffers from not really being given much to do other than be a target for more exposition. Christoph Waltz plays the villainous Captain Rom with his usual panache, but the character is so similar to others in his filmography that I found it difficult to warm to him as a bad guy. So, this leaves it to Sam Jackson to steal every scene he is in as Tarzan’s sidekick and all round American bad-ass George Washington Williams. He gets all the best lines and is nicely allowed to show off both his skills at humour and tough-guy with equal measure. Unfortunately the other supporting roles are all either caricatures or space fillers at best.
Finally, in this film I found myself with a lot of time to think and as the movie went on I found it increasingly uncomfortable that the hero is the White man who comes back to protect the Black people in their own country as he knows it better than they do. Obviously growing up in the jungle will do that to a person, but in this day and age with its increasingly overt issues between folk from different countries I did find myself wondering if Tarzan has come tothe point where he is no longer relevant? Perhaps this is me being overly sensitive and politically correct, but perhaps the issues of the moment have made me more aware of this part of the story. I don’t have an answer to that, but I certainly hope that such a classic character can be adapted so he survives in a way that works in the modern world, rather than just fading into an historical literary and cinematic memory.
To sum up; this is a film that I would probably not switch over from if I found it on my TV on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Sadly it just isn’t fun or action-packed enough to carry its convoluted and exposition-heavy story along satisfactorily despite strong turns from all the main cast and, for the most part, impressive visuals.
Two Moons out of Five.