The Legend of Tarzan (Yates; 2016)

Ladies, and from 3 to 10% of men depending on which statistics are correct, your opportunity to watch muscular men headlined by Alexander Skarsgard as John Clayton a.k.a. Tarzan run around in the jungle shirtless has finally arrived.  But, while it definitely delivers in the beefcake department it’s a bit uneven overall.  Yates and the many writers on The Legend of Tarzan tried to bring us a new updated Tarzan for a newish millennium, and while they definitely succeeded in making him modern, they failed in making him consistent.

Those behind the making of The Legend of Tarzan recognized correctly that modern audiences would not take to a classic retelling of the story.  Not only has it been done to death, but the character is now a bit old fashioned to modern sensibilities.  What they’ve done to make the character and the story more compelling and relatable, however, ends up actively contradicting itself.  In one scene, very realistic depictions of animal behavior and the way Tarzan was raised using those forms of non verbal communication as survival techniques is the rule of law while in the next animals are just doing what he wants them to no matter how complex the concepts he’s trying to get across to them through no obvious means – the Force?  Telepathy?   In one scene he’s showing that he tests the vines he swings on to avoid plummeting to certain injury on the jungle floor while in the next he’s just flying around like Spiderman chasing a fleeing motorcycle.  Both tones could work in their own way separately, but this seems like a case of too many writers adding their own style and ending up with a contradictory mess.

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Realistic animal behavior vs superpowers shown here in allegory form.

The acting here is also a bit all over the place.  The performances to watch here are by Samuel L Jackson as mercenary George Washington Williams who gets involved with Clayton because he wants to investigate rumors of slave trading in the Congo and by Christoph Waltz as the villain of the piece, Leon Rom, another mercenary working for the Belgian king who finds that to accompish his mission he must capture Tarzan.  While Christopher Waltz is being amazing at what he always does, Samuel L. Jackson is actually showing yet again that he has a lot more to his game than he’s let on in the past, this time playing a character which could be called “competent comic relief.”  He’s a man that in any other movie would be the hero, but he’s just outclassed by Tarzan, knows it, and spends most of the movie following Tarzan around delivering one liners and trying to prove that he can be useful, and very nearly, but not quite, succeeding.  In lesser hands this is a character that could have been quite annoying, but Jackson handles it like the master he is and gives us the most fun character in the movie.

Aside from these two, though, we have mediocre to poor performances on display.  Skarsgard as Clayton/Tarzan is not bad per-se, he’s just not terribly interesting or charismatic.  His performance could be best described as competent.  It gets the job done, but absolutely nothing more.  Margot Robbie as Jane Clayton, however is very one note.  She tries so hard to show that Jane is not a damsel in distress but a powerful woman in her own right, that she gives us nothing else.  We see no vulnerability, no compassion, nothing that makes her out to be anything more than a tough as nails pretty face, and you need a lot more than that to make a character relatable and likable.

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I’m so intent on proving I don’t need Tarzan that you wonder why the hell I’m with him at all.

Just to make sure that the movie is consistent in its inconsistency, the visuals of the film are also marked by flashes of genius intermingled with with stretches of mediocrity.  The landscape of the Congo is gorgeous to behold, and in the few wide shots Yates uses you can really soak it in and enjoy its splendour (even if, as I suspect, most of it is fake).  But, far too much of the movie is shot close up, so you don’t get to enjoy the spectacular scenery.  The CGI, too, is hit or miss.  They get the details right, and you can go long stretches forgetting that the animals and action on display can’t be real, but then something blatant will be missed, like a halo effect surrounding a CGI gorilla will be seen or an obvious error in perspective will be flaunted right in front of us, and our suspension of disbelief is thrown out the window for a bit.

Tarzan is a movie with a ton of unrealized promise.  When it’s on it is absolutely thrilling, engrossing, and interesting.  But, those times are too sporadic, too few, and ultimately cut short, and in a way this makes the movie more frustrating than if it were just another mediocre remake.  At least there’s a lot of beefcake on display, though.  There is still that.

Rating:  4.4 out of 10

 

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