Review: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)


Fine figure of a man: Dark Horse Entertainment/Jerry Weintraub Productions/Village Roadshow Pictures et al.

If there’s a film I never expected THE LEGEND OF TARZAN to remind me of, it was THE LONE RANGER. Both films are beautiful looking genre pieces with entertaining set pieces and shudder-inducing cultural insensitivity. Johnny Depp should never have been allowed to play a Native American and you’re never going to get around the Colonial awkwardness of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ wise saviour of Africa being white. There is no good way to tell that story today.

John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, otherwise known as Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) is called back to Africa to look into a sinister operation to replenish the Belgian Empire’s coffers. Together with Jane (Margot Robbie) and George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), Tarzan must find out who is behind the devastation of the Congo and lead the natural world to fight back.

I’ll give them credit for this: they finally get past the ridiculousness of the loincloth by not having a loincloth. In the flashbacks Tarzan is naked ( used for comic effect, but as a man raised by apes would be) and in the present he wears trousers because he’s been part of the Western world for a while by then. The Victorian London we are shown along with the portrayal of Africa is a rough outline at best. Brits, Americans and certain Congolese tribes are nice, principled people (politicians aside), the Belgians and more violent Congolese tribes are cartoony baddies. I wasn’t asking for subtlety in a Tarzan story, but some shades of grey would have been beneficial.

Alexander Skarsgard does a lot better with the primal, animalistic behaviour (highlight: his display of kitten-like affection with a pride of lions) than he does with any truly human behaviour. When he’s not being an ape-man, he’s just some muscles shoved into hilariously small suits. Samuel L Jackson plays a fascinating real person who should not have been relegated to a supporting player/comic relief in a Tarzan movie. There’s a gag that is completely beneath Jackson and the remarkable man he is portraying. Jane is American now for some reason, so I don’t really understand why they didn’t allow Margot Robbie to use her natural Australian accent. Speaking of Jane, pointing out the damsel in distress convention does not make you not a damsel in distress when you spend 80% of the film captured. Christoph Waltz and Djimon Honsou are given criminally little to work with beyond props (including some rather insulting religious icon appropriation).

The visuals are nice, if a little hamstrung by the usual in-house Warner Bros grim and grey filter. Tarzan brutally battles an alpha gorilla in the film’s stand-out action sequence, and the animals and environments are all pretty convincingly realised.

The film’s finale is completely unnecessary. It’s like LORD OF THE RINGS meets the end of Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES. You get an enemy army charged by unexpected reinforcements, ridiculous man-on-animal action and the demolition of Colonial architecture by the forces of nature.

Uncomfortable historical context, iffy acting and unnecessary action ramping aside, the thing that kills The Legend of Tarzan is that you can’t be made to care. The flashbacks to Jane’s first encounter with the Ape Man try to flesh out their relationship and add some poignancy, but when we’re brought back to the present the characters have become bland and completely lacking in chemistry. I can only imagine that director David Yates, usually such a reliable pair of hands, was already looking towards FANTASTIC BEASTS and was unable to give this project his undivided attention, because I can’t imagine why else this ended up so mediocre. We all have our off days, and that’s what The Legend of Tarzan is: a $180 million off day. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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