It’s been more than a century since Edgar Rice Burroughs published the first Tarzan story, and while the character has been featured in hundreds of film, television and radio productions since his debut appearance in 1912, he’s never been given the large-scale blockbuster treatment before (Disney’s successful animated version notwithstanding). But with a $180 million budget and a seasoned tentpole director, Warner Bros. is hoping this weekend’s The Legend of Tarzan might pave the way for a new franchise to take root.
Sporting a decent English accent and a set of impossibly chiseled abs, Alexander Skarsgård portrays the titular ape man – known to his friends as John Clayton III – who abandoned the jungles of the African Congo to return to Britain, marry his sweetheart Jane (Margot Robbie) and assume his rightful place as the Earl of Greystoke and member of the House of Lords.
Invited to return for a visit to his homeland, where the King of Belgium has nearly bankrupted the region in a failed colonization effort, Tarzan initially refuses the offer – “the jungle is too hot,” he complains dryly. But when Civil War veteran and real-life historical figure George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up on Tarzan’s doorstep with stories of the Congolese tribes being forced into servitude, the duo set out to investigate the rumors for themselves.
Amid encounters that find Tarzan affectionately nuzzling with a pride of lions or natives singing about his legendary exploits, it becomes apparent that the King’s invitation was merely a ruse concocted by his emissary, the smartly dressed Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), in an overly convoluted plot to deliver the Lord of the Jungle to a vengeful tribal leader (Djimon Hounsou) in exchange for a cache of diamonds. Between Rom’s near-constant soliloquizing and mustache twirling, he finds time to kidnap Jane (Margot Robbie) and spirit her away into the depths of the jungle with a team of mercenaries at his back, causing Tarzan and Williams to fight their way through the wilderness in a series of increasingly ludicrous action sequences marred by visual effects that range from passable to jaw-dropping in their mediocrity.
In the wake of the massive technical achievements on display in The Jungle Book and the superb motion-capture primate performances in the Planet of the Apes franchise, there’s absolutely no excuse for the animals in this film not to look spectacular, especially when taking into account the colossal amount of money Warner Bros. poured into this endeavor. But for every believable interaction between man and beast, there are five more that look as though the CGI creations haven’t quite finished rendering, with numerous shots resembling a substandard video game instead of a major studio tentpole.
The Legend of Tarzan also struggles with its own identity, boasting action beats that are shoehorned into the story, a steady barrage of anachronistic attempts at comic relief courtesy of Jackson, and a truly awful third act climax full of green screen destruction and chaos that feels like it was a direct result of studio mandate, rather than a conscious narrative decision. Director David Yates, coming off a strong showing behind the camera of the last four Harry Potter films, seems to have been crafting a very different film than Warner Bros. was looking for – the quieter, more intimate character moments are far more engrossing than any of the action - and we can’t help but wonder how much of his vision might have been compromised.
With a laundry list of shortcomings, the deck is most certainly stacked against The Legend of Tarzan, and yet the film manages to rise above its own flaws just far enough to remain consistently entertaining. Robbie’s plucky, spirited damsel is a great foil for Waltz’s gleefully sociopathic villain, and both make for an interesting contrast with Skarsgård’s quiet, brooding jungle man, whose scarred and sculpted torso might as well have been given a supporting credit of its own.
Weaving the adventures of the century-old literary character into real-life events is an inspired choice, even if the execution is a bit lacking, and The Legend of Tarzan is the Lord of the Jungle’s best cinematic outing in years. Not that the bar was all that high, of course.
The Legend of Tarzan hits theatres on July 1st.
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