Though a stunning visual feast, even the glorious production can’t belie a messy story and flat characters.
In many ways, The Legend of Tarzan is trying to be two films: an origin story and a sequel. Most audiences will have been exposed to some version of Tarzan prior to this film’s release, whether it be the 1999 Disney film or the fictional works of Edgar Rice Burroughs from which many adaptions have been based. The film takes the aspects of the tale most familiar to audiences – Tarzan being raised by apes and falling in love with Jane – and restricts them to flashback scenes. Screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer have made the odd creative choice to introduce Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) as John Clayton, the son of a wealthy lord, a far cry from the familiar setting of an African Jungle.
The Legend of Tarzan also dedicates a significant amount of screen time to exposition for the central plotline, one that is admittedly difficult to follow and not entirely compelling. It is roughly 1890 and in the wake of the Berlin Conference the African Congo has been divided between Belgium and the UK. With Belgium in severe debt, King Leopold II (never shown on screen) sends his most trusted adviser, Leon Rom (Christopher Waltz), to the Congo to extract the legendary Diamonds of Opar. Only he hits a snag when the tribe guarding the diamonds refuses to relinquish the fortune unless Tarzan is given to them in exchange. Keep in mind that this information is thrust upon the audience before we are even offered a glimpse of Tarzan.
Meanwhile John and Jane Clayton (Margot Robbie) have settled into a life of normalcy, albeit in an English estate inherited from John’s deceased parents. King Leopold and his envoy lure John back to the Congo with what is basically a PR trip to demonstrate how the Congo is flourishing since the Belgium takeover and using John’s status as a “celebrity” to achieve this. Oh, and Samuel L. Jackson also invites himself along because he suspects Belgium is secretly enforcing slavery, but really the film is desperate for comical respite from the one-note expressions of Skarsgård.
Ultimately, the biggest problem with The Legend of Tarzan is that it values aesthetic over substance. The film is undoubtedly beautiful, painting a glorious image of the African Congo and the tribes and animals that inhabit the country. The apes are naturally CGI, but are fairly emotive. There are several magnificent shots from director David Yates, including a wild stampede and some truly spectacular vine-swinging, to smaller-scale shots like the close-up of Tarzan’s misshapen hands. After directing the final four Harry Potter films, Yates is perfectly capable of handling such a large-scale production, but it isn’t enough to conceal the film’s flaws.
Samuel L. Jackson is arguably the film’s most accessible character, a doctor driven to the Congo by his convictions, with just enough crassness to live up to the type of tailor-made Jackson role viewers have come to enjoy. And yet, even though he is afforded more back-story than even Jane, the character mostly serves as a glorified sidekick.
Margot Robbie is sadly under-utilised here. While she throws a few barbs at the film’s two-dimensional antagonist and proves to be rather scrappy, there is little to her character outside of being John’s wife. As the single significant female character, it’s disheartening that she spends a third of her screen time chained to a boat while her male counterpart is literally out wrestling with apes. The scenes between Jane and John are sweet, but given that their ‘courtship’ occurred long before the film’s present time, there is far less passion between the two. Their most compelling scene – the first time they meet – is told via flashback.
The Legend of Tarzan is overstuffed with a plot that fails to service the characters and hook viewers. If the script followed one timeline, rather than splitting focus between Tarzan’s life pre and post his integration into society, perhaps it would have de-cluttered the film and offered a more detailed portrayal of its central characters.
THE REEL SCORE: 4/10