The Legend of Tarzan Review

Posted: July 21, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

the-legend-of-tarzan-movie-posterWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Of all the recent adaptations of public domain literature adaptations we’ve seen lately, Tarzan seems like it would be the most promising, at least on paper. This character has a long history in novel form and while his adventures have been adapted for the screen many times, there isn’t really a definite cinematic portrayal of Tarzan. Disney’s animated film from 1999 is probably the most famous, but it doesn’t define the work the same way Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz or Disney’s Cinderella seem to define their source material in the popular culture. So, is The Legend of Tarzan step up as the ultimate cinematic portrayal of the legendary hero? Not even close, but it is slightly better than the film’s marketing would lead one to believe.

The film takes place in the late 1800s following the Berlin conference which divided the Congo among Belgium and Great Britain. Working on behalf of King Leopold of Belgium, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is sent to the Congo to exploit the country’s diamonds through slavery and coercion. The city of Omar is rich in diamonds, but the tribe leader Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) will only offer them if Rom can provide him the legendary Tarzan, whom Mbonga seeks vengeance on. Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) has since returned to England and has been living as an English lord under his birth name; John Clayton III. Rom extends what seems to be a diplomatic invitation to visit the Congo. Clayton is hesitant, but his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) is eager to return as she misses old friends and feels that is where she really belongs. Aided by American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), the group make the journey where they are quickly attacked and Jane is kidnaped by Rom. Tarzan must return to his roots and save her while he and Williams fight against the atrocities occurring in the Congo.

First and foremost, it’s unfortunate that this had to come out the same year as Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book as the two share a number of similarities and comparisons are inevitable. In particular, The Legend of Tarzan will not be viewed as the visual effects spectacle the same way Favreau’s film ways. There’s definitely a lot of visual effects here and while most of them are solid, there are also moments of artificiality. The backgrounds often look false and the live action actors don’t always mesh well with the CGI characters. I also think The Jungle Book was stronger in terms of set-pieces. The action scenes here are mostly serviceable, but they’re sometimes over busy and often shot too close.

Despite being a mostly unflattering comparison, I do think The Legend of Tarzan does certain things better than The Jungle Book. In particular, I think that this film does a better job conveying a sense of danger about the jungle. The animals never talk and remain imposing even when not in direct conflict with the film’s heroes. In fact generally speaking I think director David Yates does a good job nailing the right tone. There’s definitely a sense of weight and stakes to the proceedings, but this is primarily an adventure movie and Yates maintains a good sense of fun. This is in large part thanks to the screenplay, which isn’t afraid to mix in the horrors of King Leopold’s reign over the Congo and issues of slavery, but also knows not to dive too deeply into such territory.

The Legend of Tarzan definitely feels like an old-school adventure film, with virtuous and admirable heroes and loathsome villains. There is some window dressing to some darker histories for both Tarzan and Wallace, but the characters remain pretty simplistic. Samuel L. Jackson makes for a really fun sidekick and while I wasn’t crazy about Margot Robbie’s work at first, she had charmed me by the end. Christoph Waltz is also pretty effective as the villain. He’s doing his usual schtick, but it works here. Unfortunately the cast has a big Achilles heel in Tarzan himself, who is just boring. I don’t entirely blame Alexander Skarsgård as there isn’t really much on the page, but at the same time Skarsgård brings nothing to it aside from an impressive physique. The character just mopes around and I didn’t really buy the transition from English lord with an identity crisis to the traditional vision of Tarzan. This is a pretty major problem as it makes it difficult to the central adventure and it also leads to the film’s first act and dénouement feeling a little pointless.

The Legend of Tarzan has a lot of the ingredients for a fun blockbuster, but it can’t fully deliver. At the end of the day, it’s hard to recommend a summer adventure film with a boring hero and mediocre action scenes. Having said that, this is better than I really expected it to be. That fun tone is maintained through most of the film and there’s some decent work from the supporting cast. I don’t know, I haven’t been to the theater in a while, maybe I was just in the mood for some light fun, but this struck me as an inoffensive enough way to pass the time. I wouldn’t recommend anyone rush out to see it, but if you do for whatever reason, you might be surprised. I feel like this is the kind of film destine to be seen on TV on rainy Sundays and be described as, “not that bad”. And you know, despite its flaws, it really isn’t that bad.

C-

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