Who is Tarzan? He is John Clayton, the Viscount Greystoke, who is left alone in the African jungles as a child and raised into a feral yet heroic man – the “lord of the jungle” — by a tribe of great apes. He is also one of the most famous fictional characters of the 20th century, the subject of some 26 books written by his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, not to mention the star of many other books, comics, movies, radio shows and TV series.
But this is the 21st century, and what might have been instantly recognizable a few decades ago is now either a curio or completely forgotten by newer generations of fans and consumers finding their own heroes. The last live-action Tarzan movie was released in 1998 (Disney produced an animated one the following year), and like a lot of his contemporaries – the Lone Ranger, Green Hornet and Burroughs’ John Carter among them – Tarzan’s name doesn’t conjure up a certain kind of classical pulp adventure but rather a hazy memory of something your grandparents once watched in black and white.
In a way, that could make Tarzan ripe for reinvention in an expensive new feature film. But The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgard as the titular hero and Margot Robbie as his American love Jane Porter, is a generic, tedious adventure that hopes you will have some sort of vague memory of the character while also attempting a half-hearted post-modern spin on his mythology. Sadly, Skarsgard doesn’t have the charisma to pull off the character and is saddled by a script that makes him into a one-dimensional superhero instead of exploring his potentially intriguing dual nature. Director David Yates (the Harry Potter franchise) makes it all look murky and unappetizing to boot, and for a tentpole-sized film, Tarzan is saddled with some obvious fake sets and a lot of genuinely shoddy CG.
When we meet Tarzan, he is living in England on his family estate and married to Jane, although neither seems particularly excited to be nestled comfortably in the cradle of British aristocracy. Tarzan/Clayton is a celebrity of sorts, his exploits in the jungle from years earlier having been chronicled by the media of the day, so the House of Commons sees it as a great bit of publicity to have him serve as a trade emissary on a mission to Congo Free State, which has been annexed by Belgium’s King Leopold II. But the mission itself is a trap set by Belgian captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who plans to ensnare Tarzan and hand him over to an African tribal leader (Djimon Hounsou) with a longstanding score to settle.
The idea of Tarzan being a media personality of his age (as far as it goes) is an interesting one, and there’s even a moment where Waltz riffs on the “me Tarzan, you Jane” cliché. There’s also some novelty in incorporating real historical figures into the story, such as Rom himself (who was by all accounts a nasty piece of work) and George Washington Williams (portrayed with his patented combination of snark and indifference by Samuel L. Jackson), the African-American writer whose actual journey to Congo – where he exposed Leopold’s horrific mistreatment of the population there – is woven into this story. But both actors rely more on their usual tricks instead of breathing any real life into the characters, with the mannered Waltz in particular needing a long vacation from bad guys.
Where the film (and the screenplay by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer) fails even more egregiously is in its development of Tarzan himself. There is a potentially fascinating story to tell here of a man who struggles to repress his true nature to fit into “proper” society, and how he must reclaim his real self in order to survive. The Legend of Tarzan, however, only plays fleeting lip service to that. After Tarzan, Jane and their party arrive in Congo, they are attacked by Rom’s men, who kidnap Jane and leave Tarzan momentarily out of commission. But within minutes, he is up and running and swinging through the jungle as if he had left for a weekend instead of many years. We don’t even get to see him stumble, make mistakes, push himself too fast too soon – anything that would create some drama for the character. Tarzan is an all-purpose superhero here, and Skarsgard’s bland, non-verbal performance doesn’t help matters.
I’ve heard others say that Robbie is not a “damsel in distress” in this movie, an odd observation considering that she’s handcuffed to a boat for half the running time and in need of rescue. Miscast, she’s given little to do except glower at Waltz. That boat ride, by the way, aboard Rom’s private craft as it makes its way downriver with Tarzan and Williams in pursuit, couldn’t move slower if Rom had the natives get out and push. When Yates cuts to a pointless wrestling match between Skarsgard and a digital gorilla it’s almost a relief.
This all leads to what is supposed to be a grand climax featuring tribal warriors, gorillas, Rom’s army of mercenaries and our hero (not to mention some man-eating alligators for good measure), but by then you’ve lost all interest in how the machinations of the plot play out. The screenwriters really don’t know what to do except fall back on the usual blockbuster tropes, and Yates – who rarely elevated his four Harry Potter films beyond a faithful slog through the text – shows little inspiration here in his staging of the action, his compositions or the film’s humorless tone.
In fact, no one involved with The Legend of Tarzan, from the cast to the director to the people who programmed those awful CG animals, seems very excited about it. That’s likely because no one involved probably even knew why they were making the picture or who they were making it for. Like John Carter and the Lone Ranger – fictional heroes who have almost no modern relevance – Tarzan should go back on the shelf. Those dusty old paperbacks may thrill the occasional curious soul, but they’ll never make it back to the best seller list.
The Legend of Tarzan is in theaters this Friday, July 1.