That Tarzan became the longest lasting and most famous of Edgar Rice Borroughs works seems odd to me, given how influential John Carter became on the sci-fi genre, but I suppose not getting a film adaptation until the 2010s will do that to you. Tarzan, on the other hand, has had dozens of films, dating back to some short films in 1918, and has thus been burned into the cultural unconscious. And I suppose having a Disney film in the 90s didn’t hurt.
That said, it’s kind of an awkward property to make work. It’s steeped in then-typical but now-awkward racial politics (upper class white dude winds up in the jungle? Well of course he’ll be in charge of everything…yeah, its awkward) and the concept as a whole hasn’t aged super well. Plus, not to insult one of my father’s favorite pieces of turn of the century literature, but I’m not certain anyone was interested in a new film adaptation. But hey, got to use every franchise we can, and you can’t get much more classic and well known than Tarzan.
The Legend of Tarzan positions itself as a sequel to some non-existent series of Tarzan films. As the movie opens, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) has already discovered his heritage, courted and married Jane (Margot Robbie) and returned to England to take his place as the master of his father’s land. But, due to his familiarity with Africa, he is asked to return to the Congo to tour it at the invitation of the Belgian colonizers.
But all is not well in the Belgian Congo (and isn’t that the understatement of the century). Anti-slavery advocate George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) ask to accompany him to investigate charges the Belgians are re-instituting the slave trade. And back in Africa, Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) has teamed up with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Honsou) to bring Tarzan to him, in exchange for some diamonds to pay for the Belgian colonization.
Those of you not well versed in 1800s history may not be aware of it, but I already tipped off one of the major ways this movie fails. See, both Leon Rom and George Washington Williams are real life historical figures, both of whom were active in the Belgian occupation of the Congo, oppressing the locals and arguing against the slave trade, respectively. So what that means is, yes, the producers of this movie chose to set their PG-13 movie about a guy raised by gorillas during one of the most brutal and horrific genocides in African history. Good job.
Part of that might be an intentional attempt by the filmmakers to preempt and step around the awkward racial politics of its source material, but a smarter movie might have avoided it by simply focusing on the more fantastical aspects of the Tarzan canon. But the fact that Legend keeps bringing race up makes its race based failures impossible to ignore.
Samuel L. Jackson’s character is a useless sidekick so obvious I’m surprised they didn’t get Tracy Jordan to play him, and while Tarzan has a bunch of Black Best Friends (Trademark) they don’t…do anything. Like, they cheer him on in the finale and hang around a bunch, but they never participate in an action scene, and I can’t remember if they even have individual names.
That kind of cracked and flawed foundation would be enough to sink a very good movie, but as we continue our walking tour through this movie’s many many failings, you’ll find that this is not a good movie. The action beats are edited to sludge (during one fight scene I was sure Tarzan was fighting the same guy over and over, because I couldn’t figure out what was going on) and the movie is paced clumsily enough to keep me from getting into it.
The script and plot aren’t doing the movie’s flaccid story any favors either. The dialogue is clunky, the character work universally weak and the plot is predictable. They play up Djimon Honsou’s character motivation like it’s a big reveal, but when they finally tell us, it’s the most cliche and obvious thing in the world, that it made me wonder why they bothered to conceal it. And that’s when they bother to explain things. They tell us that Tarzan’s ape family hates him now, but then they love him again, and I don’t recall a real explanation for either.
This is bad enough that an all star cast of Oscar winners couldn’t save it, so this cast clearly isn’t up to the challenge. Jackson and Waltz are sleep walking through their roles, hoping Tarantino will call again sometime soon. Robbie is at least into her role, but she is in over her head trying to save a character who is one of the worst Sexy Lamps in recent movies. But the big dad is the one in the middle: Alexander Skarsgard is a charisma black hole, so completely unengaging to watch that he damages everyone around him. His presence is so odds with his impressive size that it almost feels like a joke.
There are other things I could go on about (such as the weird running gag about how Tarzan’s knuckles are deformed which…never goes anywhere or the fact that Tarzan defeats the villain by flexing his neck muscles) but I think you get the idea. The Legend of Tarzan is easily one of worst films of the year. I don’t know if it’s worse than Batman v. Superman, but while the individual elements might not be as bad, it also doesn’t have a single element that works. It is a complete and utter failure of a movie, and I recommend you see almost anything else.
Elessar is a 26 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he can’t even go into the fact that Margot Robbie’s character is supposed to be from Africa. He…he just can’t.
– I guess the CGI is okay
– I like Djimon Honsou
– Margot Robbie is nice to look at
– everything else
– seriously if I go through it point by point we’ll be here all day
– even the soundtrack is bad