Title: The Legend Of Tarzan
Release Date: July 1st, 2016
Studio: Warner Bros Pictures
Director: David Yates
Release Format: Theatrical
In many ways the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs stand as the building blocks for the age of superheroes. Tarzan and John Carter, in particular, embody the archetypes that are arguably more popular now than in their heyday. In a time when Marvel and DC dominate the film conversation, pumping these stories full of nitrous for a new generation seems like a no brainer. However, here’s the catch. We’re already starting to grow tired of our own superheroes. In a world where an obligatory cinematic universe opens up every week, the stories that inspired them to seem more like mulch than roots. Disney made this unfortunate discovery with John Carter a couple of years back. Now, it’s Warner Brothers’ turn on the chopping block with The Legend Of Tarzan.
The story takes place over a decade after Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) and Jane (Margot Robbie) met. The former king of the jungle has since become an English aristocrat, while his wife has become a teacher. Everything seems hunky dory until he receives a fishy invite to return to the jungle as a trade emissary. Accompanied by George Washington Williams (Samuel J. Jackson), Tarzan and Jane reluctantly take the offer and discover trouble amiss. Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) has started taking the natives as slaves, kidnaping Jane in an attack on her tribe. Now, a domesticated Tarzan and Williams must find a way to retrieve Jane and save the jungle.
The fundamental problem with The Legend Of Tarzan is that it wants to be both conceptually inventive and risk-free. The concept of Tarzan having to re-adjust to the jungle is actually a very clever one. Ideally, it would humanize a character that has always been hard to track while allowing the filmmakers to play with the story’s troupes. It’s akin to what Kenneth Branagh did with Thor. However, this movie steps onto the playground only to sit in the sand. Tarzan is almost immediately re-adjusted, and the film devolves into a trite chase movie with standard action sequences.
It certainly doesn’t help that our Tarzan isn’t exactly a ray of charisma. Skarsgård certainly looks the part, but he never sells it. His Tarzan is a stilted bore with no authority or presence. He seems like a model with dirt on him, not the commanding king of the jungle. I don’t believe that this guy could hold a conversation with a Pygmy Marmoset let alone a gorilla. Meanwhile, the supporting cast of fantastic actors is all trapped in standard types. Robbie brings her spunky charisma to Jane, but the character isn’t given anything to do besides wait for her savior. Opposite her is Waltz, and while there isn’t a generic villain that he can’t make charismatic, this is perhaps his blandest typecasting yet. With his snakeskin necklace and twirly mustache, he’s exactly the caricature needed to keep up the lack of complexity. Jackson is clearly supposed to be the audience avatar. However, he’s so generically written that it relies entirely on Jackson’s charm to carry it. He can’t though since Tarzan is so stiff that there aren’t any good moments of interplay.
David Yates, coming from making the later few Harry Potter films, finds himself totally lost here. His aversion to color served the darker aesthetic of those stories but does a great disservice to the jungle. Nothing feels vibrant. It is as if he waited for the season where the plants die to shoot. His action sequences are completely flat, a combination of shoddy CGI and terrible camerawork. There’s plenty of hacky slow motion here, and the minute anything quickens the frame is always in the wrong place. There’s no sense of fluidity or motion as Tarzan swings through the trees. It’s more like a studio rep covering the audience’s eyes while whispering in their ear “it’s very cool, don’t worry.” Beyond that, none of the sequences themselves have any playfulness or invention. It’s all the standard monster mashes, chases, and near misses that are essentially parody fodder at this point.
The Legend Of Tarzan is a terrible movie, but not even the productive type of terrible. There’s nothing to laugh at here, as that would require Yates and company to have gone outside of the box. Watching it is more of a game of storytelling bingo than anything else. As every beat falls predictably in place, you can give yourself a little pat on the back for predicting them. There was very clearly a concept here for a great movie at one point. However, everything about the final product screams of a studio who is terrified of giving their product any personality. In a summer where even tried and true heroes are falling short, there’s no place for this false jungle king.
Characters: All of the players here are stock types, and the film takes no opportunities to subvert them. Tarzan is your strong hero, Jane is your damsel in distress, and Rom is literally a mustache twirler.
Cinematography: This is a murky, ugly looking film. Yates’ passion for making everything look gray does no favors for what’s supposed to be a spunky adventure movie. All of the action scenes are either impossible to make out, or drenched in herky-jerky CGI.
Story: While the initial premise of an out of practice Tarzan is intriguing, there’s nothing interesting done with it. Any humor or subversion is left behind in favor of a standard adventure movie.
Acting: Alexander Skarsgård makes for a bland leading man, while a supporting cast of fantastic actors is given nothing interesting to react to. Robbie, Waltz, and Jackson are all wasted here.
- An Inventive Premise
- The occasional glimmers of charisma from the supporting cast
- Skarsgård's lack of screen presence.
- Terrible Visual Effects
- Lack of invention
- Stock Characters
- Bland action sequences
- Yates' terrible looking color palate
Michael Fairbanks is a lifelong film lover from San Diego, California. His favorite movies include The Dark Knight, Silver Linings Playbook, and As Good As It Gets. In addition to The Nerd Stash, Fairbanks writes for both The Young Folks, and his own blog, entitled Fairbanks on Film.