Mark Reviews Movies

The Legend of Tarzan


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: David Yates

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Sidney Ralitsoele, Ben Chaplin, Jim Broadbent 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 7/1/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 1, 2016

For those—both of you—who don't know who Tarzan is, The Legend of Tarzan offers the back story in the form of intermittent flashbacks. For those who don't care for the traditional and well-known narrative of Tarzan, the movie offers the character after his time in the jungle—for a brief while, that is. Since this is yet another reimagining of the Edgar Rice Burroughs character and stories, it is an inevitability that Tarzan will end up swinging across vines through the trees, fighting man and beast and beasts of men, and bellowing that trademarked yell. The movie is constantly at odds about which version of Tarzan it wants to have.

Maybe that's the point. Tarzan is supposed to be a man who is torn between the life of his upbringing—by apes in the African jungle—and that of his birth—to British aristocrats who found themselves shipwrecked. Save for those flashbacks, the movie takes place after Tarzan, played by Alexander Skarsgård, became "civilized." He is now Lord John Clayton III of Greystoke Manor, and he would like to put his life in the jungle behind him, thank you very much.

This is an intriguing hook, but of course, it can't last. As soon as we're becoming accustomed to the notion of an urbane Tarzan, the movie dismisses it, turning the character into an undefined entity. He jokes with a group of kids, whom his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) teaches in their home, that he doesn't use the stairs in the manor and that he instead climbs the curtains. We assume it's a joke, because there's no evidence that John is anything other than a refined, mostly silent aristocrat whose hands happen to be stronger and larger because he spent most of his life walking around on all fours.

Essentially, Tarzan must return to his old ways for him to have any sort of defining characteristics. Before he does, the character really has nothing to do. As a result, the screenplay by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer is impatient to bring the character back to his old swinging grounds to get him back to those habits. It's likely the reason we get those flashbacks so early in the London scenes. Everything else that happens there exists to set the plot that will get Tarzan back to Africa in motion.

The movie's impatience is perhaps its defining feature. There's little room for anything that isn't related to the plot, and that goes beyond the London scenes.

That plot involves Tarzan being recruited by the British government to serve as an envoy to the Belgian Congo. George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American army veteran of the Civil War and far-less-noble battles with Native Americans, believes the King of Belgium has returned slavery to his colony to make up for Belgium's national debt. That's enough to get Tarzan back to his adoptive homeland, with Jane tagging along to serve as the inevitable damsel in distress, despite her obvious resistance to the concept (Basically, it's Cozad and Brewer having their cake and eating it, too—making Jane a "strong" character to avoid the obvious elements of the damsel stereotype, while still taking advantage of the basic concept for the story).

Meanwhile, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has been assigned by the King of Belgium to find some legendary diamonds in the Congo, has entered into an agreement with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). The chief will give Rom the diamonds if the Belgian envoy can lure Tarzan to him. Rom captures Jane and some members of a local tribe. Tarzan, Williams, and the survivors of Rom's raid on the village give chase.

With Tarzan back to his old customs, the movie proceeds to offer a few action sequences. They fall flat. That's partly because the visual effects almost always look like shoddy green-screen work, but it's mostly because director David Yates never communicates a sense of the joy and freedom of the character's actions.

Here, Tarzan's death-defying plunges and free-wheeling vine-swinging feel like little more than a method of transportation. They get him from one plot point to the next, but that's it. It's almost as if Yates is as bored with the traditional concept of Tarzan as the screenwriters are with the notion of subverting that tradition. The few moments of wonder are left to the animals (which look much more convincing than the humans against the backdrops). Tarzan reunites with a pride of lions and encounters some majestic elephants in the jungle in mostly wordless scenes that give a hint of what's missing from the character as presented here. When Tarzan meets his adopted family of apes, it may be to fight, but again, there's a sense of something that he has lost in his transition from the wild to civilization.

That might be the problem here. Yates, Cozad, and Brewer seem to be under the impression that there's a clear distinction between Tarzan's two ways of life—that the character can only be one way or the other. What The Legend of Tarzan never attempts to explore is the idea that he can be both or that the heart of the character is in the space between the two.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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