Years after leaving the jungle, and fully acclimated to society life in London with wife Jane (Margot Robbie), Lord John Clayton/Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) is persuaded to return to the Congo to investigate the activities of Leon Rom.
Did Tarzan figure in your youth? The chances are slim. Sure, if you’re of a certain vintage, you may have watched Ron Ely yodel his way through the jungle on Saturday mornings, whilst others may have fond memories of the Filmation cartoon serial. Or you may have caught the Disney cartoon from 1999 (not many did to be fair)? The perennial vine-swinger was a firm favourite for years but has not been around much recently (and there’s a reason for that). Regardless, Warner Bros. have saw fit to resurrect him once more.
You can see the appeal. Get David Yates, hugely successful director of four Harry Potter films (and upcoming prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), couldn’t be hotter right now Margot Robbie AND Christoph Waltz, who has seemingly cornered the market in ornery, ruthless bastards? Add in a EuroHunk in the guise of Alexander Skarsgård plus the huge box office clout of Samuel L. Jackson and you’ve got a guaranteed smash, right? Wrong. Drill down to the core of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories and you’ve got a white man in Africa saving the day and it’s people; perfectly acceptable (and racist) in Burroughs own colonial times, but certainly not so now.
To give writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer their due, The Legend of Tarzan makes big strides in putting real life bad guys (Leon Rom, aka The Butcher of Congo, was evil incarnate) and good guys (go Google George Washington Williams and feel that your life is inadequate) into the mix, but it’s impossible to move away from that central storyline. But also, and crucially, The Legend of Tarzan is also rather boring.
It’s assumed – fairly enough – that we know the basic set-up; that Lord John Clayton became orphaned in the jungle, was raised by gorillas and became the famed Tarzan. But starting the film with him back in London and living the full society life – pinky finger out whilst drinking tea included – is confusing. Sure, we get some flashbacks giving the bare details of his unconventional upbringing but the disconnect between his life then and now is such that you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve wandered into the second half of a double-bill.
Once he, and Jane, get to the Congo it picks up a little. Jane gets kidnapped quickly (but refuses to play the damsel in distress and yell on cue) and Tarzan gives chase, aided by Jackson’s George Washington Williams. But with Rom’s getaway being a steamer paddle ship, the going is hardly frantic. Coupled with a leaden and dour Skarsgård who’s Tarzan is 100% fun free, and some truly terrible CGI (the movie was filmed almost entirely on location in a Watford warehouse) it’s all really rather dull.
Even Waltz, usually such good value, seems bored and only Jackson brings much-needed energy, much as he does with lots of other movies. As we trudge to the inevitable face-off, Tarzan alone rescues hundreds of slaves, makes up with an adversary only because the plot needs him to, gets saved twice himself whilst Jane frees herself (before getting kidnapped again immediately) before Jackson bellows, “Can we please just stop this?!”, echoing the audience’s own feelings.
Coming so soon after the really rather wonderful The Jungle Book, the bar is set high for spot-on human/animal interactions. Tarzan nuzzles a lion and fights a gorilla, both unconvincingly, and the SFX in the final reel should have studio heads fuming that their movie isn’t finished yet. Tarzan’s yell sums everything up; it sounds like a plaintive howl, not a call to arms.