Movie Review: 'The Legend of Tarzan' Stumbles in the Jungle

Movie Review: 'The Legend of Tarzan' Stumbles in the Jungle

It’s not so much the Legend as an Epilogue: this new Tarzan movie takes place a decade after the Lord of the Apes has left the jungle and adjusted to the life of aristocrat John Clayton III at Greystoke Manor in London.

Tarzan/Clayton (played by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård) seems pretty nonplussed at Greystoke in early scenes, but he declines an invitation to return to the Congo at the behest of Belgium’s King Leopold and encouragement from local advisors to report on the development of the region and shore up international relations.

What could bring him back to the Congo? How about American Civil War veteran George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects Belgium of forcing the natives into servitude in a diamond mining slavery operation and needs Tarzan’s help to navigate the jungle and free the country.

Meanwhile, mustache-twirling villain Leon Rom (Christophe Waltz) has orchestrated the Belgium invitation in order to trade Tarzan to Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou, underused) for some more diamonds, because the slavery ring, apparently, isn’t producing enough. If only he realized he was inviting the one person who could spoil his plans.

This new storyline, which sees Rom kidnap Jane (Margot Robbie) and all but tie her to some train tracks, is a barely-sketched bore that tries oh-so hard to update the Tarzan mythos to 2016 ideals but loses any sense of joy or adventure in the process.

When Tarzan suddenly deploys his thusfar unseen animal-controlling powers in the film’s climactic scenes, ordering a herd of water buffalo to stampede a village and a bask of crocodiles to devour the villains, it becomes clear that writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer have done little more than dress up Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic creation in modern superhero guise.

Still, about fifteen minutes worth of flashback scenes – detailing Tarzan’s upbringing by the apes in the African jungles – show us what this could have been. The original story still holds a raw power, and state-of-the-art effects help bring it to life as never seen before.

It’s been more 30 years since Greystoke, and yet I’m guessing most members of the target audience won’t have seen that film, let alone the Johnny Weissmuller B-movie classics.  Another origin story would have been welcome, especially as an alternative to the modernized version we get here, which half-heartedly tries to address the more controversial aspects of the original tale and comes off even more dubious because of it.

Director David Yates – who helmed the final four Harry Potter flicks – gives this blockbuster relatively painless pacing and a slick sheen; the Africa scenes, shot by cinematographer Henry Braham, often look truly spectacular when not weighed down by excessive CGI.  

As the King of the Jungle, star Skarsgård doesn’t convey a character so much as an awesome physical specimen: his lean, mean muscle & bone physique isn’t your father’s Tarzan, but conveys the kind of unreal superhero that might actually be able to swing across endless vines through the African jungle and command an army of wildlife.

At the end of the day, Tarzan 2016 is little more than another superhero flick crowding the multiplexes. Jackson, Robbie, and Waltz are able to have some fun with their cartoon characterizations, but the rest of the movie veers more towards grim self-seriousness than light comic book entertainment. 

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