Who asked for a Tarzan movie in 2016? The Edgar Rice Burroughs character is a well-established fixture in popular culture that we’ve slowly turned our back on since the late 90s. To wide-eyed Westerners in the mid-20th century, it was an exciting, exotic tale of a muscle-bound British lord raised by apes to tame the jungle that is now dreadfully antiquated, a relic born of naïve British imperialism and lionized tales of the white man’s burden. In making The Legend of Tarzan, director David Yates (the last four Harry Potter films) had the challenge of acknowledging Tarzan’s place in modern pop culture while also trying to create a pulpy summer blockbuster whose spectacle could stand on its own. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t quite work.
Taking place in 1890, years after Tarzan – the orphaned John Clayton III, Lord of Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) – has returned to England and a life of waistcoats and comfort with Jane (Margot Robbie), he is called back by American surveyor George Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to return to the Congo to stop the plans of Belgian captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz). Those plans, it must be said, involve an overly convoluted mix of slave trading, railroad building, and diamond mining that would make even Roger Moore’s head spin. By starting with Tarzan already established to himself and the public, the film ostensibly operates on the idea that we already know the shorthand of Tarzan, but then gives out his origin in muddy flashbacks anyway.
Attempting the tone of breezy pulp period adventures like 1999’s The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean, The Legend of Tarzan makes the criminal mistake of winking too often at the audience. While the timeframe of the story is fascinating, one gets the impression that the ‘legend’ of Tarzan is just an excuse for most of the other characters to be annoyingly “in” on the joke. Jackson cracks wise about “me Tarzan, you Jane,” and Waltz snarks upon hearing his first Tarzan yell that “it sounded different than I expected.” In one particularly tone-deaf moment, Robbie smugly asks her captor if she should scream “like a damsel,” the screenwriters apparently forgetting that hanging a lantern on Jane’s damselhood doesn’t work if she’s still just a hostage for most of the film.
Tarzan and his command of the jungle are treated well enough for the film’s purposes, though it’s still mired in unconvincing CGI. Legend’s frequent encounters with wildlife are largely rubbery and lifeless, save for a rare moment of tenderness between Tarzan and a few lions near the beginning and an exciting wildebeest stampede at the end; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this is not. There are no Caesers or Kobas in this film to give any of the apes a clear, distinct identity, for as much as it tries.
As for Tarzan himself, Skarsgard does his best with an inherently wooden part, and handles the action bits well enough when he’s not replaced by a CG doll, but he simply doesn’t get enough to do besides jut his cheekbones and brood. One might have flashes of Taylor Kitsch’s bland performance in another modern Burroughs adaptation, John Carter – one which even fans of that film point out as a weak spot. Robbie and Waltz don’t fare much better. Robbie fills Jane with incredible fire, but restricts any charming rebelliousness to one or two scenes with Waltz, who just plays Blofeld again. Djimon Hounsou’s Mbonga is set up as the Big Bad, the guy who has an understandable grudge against Tarzan and engineers his return, but is woefully sidelined and dealt with all too quickly.
If there’s one thing that works in Tarzan, it’s Jackson’s George Washington Williams, a real historical figure who died a year after this film is meant to take place. Acting as Tarzan’s erstwhile cowboy comedy sidekick, Jackson brings his considerable charisma to bear against even the flattest of CG concoctions, and becomes a genuinely fun foil for Tarzan’s bland superheroics once the quest to save Jane and Tarzan’s tribal friends gets going. It was a good move to make him the film’s audience surrogate, since his wide-eyed appreciation of Tarzan goes a long way toward making us buy into the legend. You’d almost rather just watch a movie about him.
It’s almost a shame that a film this shoddily plotted and paced is shot so lovingly. David Yates renders the Congo with sublime beauty, from the vast green jungles flanking the Congo River to the honey-tinted plains surrounding the African tribe Tarzan tries to protect. Yates has a firm grasp on cinematic grit and detail, which paradoxically makes the blatant cutting from physical sets to sloppy green-screen all the more egregious. No matter how good the movie looks, it doesn’t quite wallpaper over the inherently icky white savior aspects of Tarzan himself (his mission is literally to free helpless African slaves), making it a strange movie to half-heartedly update for modern audiences.
Tarzan is too dull to offer consistent pulp excitement, too self-serious to let itself have fun, and too reliant on same-y CG spectacle to truly thrill. I’ll just wait for the Sam Jackson spinoff, The Adventures of George Washington Williams, Emancipatory Cowboy, thank you very much.