The new Tarzan flick offers nothing to audiences they haven’t seen a million times before, and can’t even manage to be a bit of fun in the process.
Relief washes over you as The Legend of Tarzan begins and you realize this isn’t just a cash hungry, blockbuster remake of the animated musical from 1999. Perhaps it’ll be a bit more mature, you hopefully wonder, as the text on screen discusses late 1800s Danish imperialism in the Congo. So we have to wait for the vine swinger, you think, as Christoph Waltz acts very much like he has in every other villainous role he’s played while striking a deal with that intimidatingly passionate fellow from Blood Diamond (you look it up later: Djimon Hounsou). Waltz offers to deliver Tarzan in exchange for some diamonds from Hounsou, and you allow yourself to think, Okay, now it’s time for the fun-loving ape-man! as the title card presents itself. There’s still hope this could be good.
The film takes place a few years after Tarzan—who now, confusingly for those who grew up on the Disney version, goes by John Clayton III—and Jane return to London, and stumbles through a sullen first act in which George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson as the only black man with a shirt because of his lack of enormous muscles) convinces Tarzan that the Danes are enslaving the Congo’s people to maintain colonial financial prosperity. After Jane’s urgings and about 20 minutes of Alexander Skarsgård’s best Troubled Handsome Man schtick, they return to where you wanted to see them all along: the jungle. It is here that hope starts to wane for this hybrid spinoff-sequel.
The change of location fails to positively affect the tone; The Legend of Tarzan maintains its self-seriousness throughout, which serves unsuccessfully when paired with a script that lacks any intricacy, depth or message. The story’s most universal downfall might be its inability to surprise: the happy couple reconnect with a small African tribe before Captain Léon Rom (Waltz) attacks, ending up with Jane as his captive rather than Tarzan. What follows is essentially an hour long set piece, as Tarzan does a lot of running through the trees, inconceivably hijacks a train, and interacts with a few animals that don’t feel like they should live near one another (unless the great plains are a lot closer to the vegetative jungle than I thought) in order to save the day and get his beloved back.
In fact, if not for George Washington Williams trying his utmost to keep pace with Tarzan, there would be no reason for dialogue in these scenes. Thankfully, Jackson offers the film’s only levity, but this doesn’t come off as a strategic choice by director David Yates; instead, it just feels like Jackson realized this project was a joke and decided to goof off the whole time (take note of his facial expressions throughout—they’re ridiculous). Meanwhile, Waltz and Margot Robbie (Jane) struggle due to inadequate parts; we know these two can act, but they need something with which to work. Waltz can’t quite make his boilerplate villain unique, and Robbie tries to prove she’s not a damsel in distress despite pretty much being a damsel in distress—albeit with a bite—the whole time. It comes as little surprise when (yes, spoiler here, but c’mon, man, if you didn’t know that this was going to happen then shame on you and you should watch more movies) Tarzan rescues her.
Yates isn’t particularly helpful either. The man who helmed the final four Harry Potter flicks proves not to be much of an elastic director; the world-is-on-the-line seriousness in Harry Potter satisfies because, well, it’s Harry Potter. But Yates seems to have forgotten that Tarzan satisfies a very different bit of nostalgia within us, one that is pure childhood joy and wonder (at least within me, someone in his early 20s who grew up on Disney’s animated films). The animated film came out when I was six: I watched it several times, listened to the soundtrack, fell in love, and always had fun. The Legend of Tarzan is not fun. Its color palette is a dark, dreary gray, and the action is hard to follow, and altogether unbelievable at times—the train hijacking stands out most, and if you do see the film, think about how pendulums should relate to men swinging on vines. The Legend of Tarzan proves Yates can only succeed with loads of help. Such was the case with Harry Potter thanks to J.K. Rowling, but the same cannot be said of Tarzan, which drags itself through a 110 minute runtime, screaming a reminder about how it’s a studio project the whole time.
By the end, it’s too long, too shallow and too forgettable to feel like anything other than a movie that’s financial prosperity, thanks to its $180 million budget, will depend almost entirely on China. Maybe they can have a little fun over there with this one.