It has been 18 years since we last had a live action Tarzan film on the big screen – 1998’s Tarzan And The Lost City with Casper Van Dien as the legendary Ape Man. It has been even longer since we have had a halfway decent film adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic pulp character. And it looks as if we are going to be going a bit longer before that streak is broken. Director David Yates’ The Legend Of Tarzan is a cinematic dud, with an under-cooked plot and devoid of any real propelling energy.
It has been years since John Clayton, aka Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), was discovered living in the jungle and returned home to England to accept the mantle of the Earl of Greystoke. But as he knows Africa like no other, His Majesty’s Government asks him to be their envoy to investigate a large section of the Congo controlled by the Dutch. Joining him are wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson, giving a typical, and out of phase with the rest of the film, Sam Jackson-esque performance). But the entire trip was orchestrated by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who is planning on delivering Clayton to a vengeful tribal chief in exchange for treasure from the fabled lost city of Opar.
In a way, The Legend Of Tarzan feels like a throwback film to the Tarzan films and other jungle adventure pictures of the 1930s through 50s. There’s a basic plot that serves as a skeleton to move the characters from set piece to set piece. The only difference is that thanks to advances in special effects, those set pieces are bigger. But movies have also advanced in their storytelling techniques, a fact that the script here has forgotten.
Much like the film’s lack of forward storytelling momentum, the lead cast remains fairly stagnant. There is no character development for any of the main characters. They remain static throughout the film’s runtime. Tarzan is the same at the start as he is at the end. The same for Jane. Jackson’s Williams admits to having done some bad things in the past, but seems to have achieved redemption for them long before the movie starts. And Waltz’s bad guy is just motivated by the same stock greed that always motivates the bad guys in these pictures.
To his credit, Yates tries to keep things as interesting as possible throughout the film. He shows far more interesting camera work here than in his work on the last several installments of the Harry Potter franchise. He brings a visual flair through the use of some extreme close ups that help to give certain sequences whatever tension they have. Unfortunately, it is all in the service of a story that goes nowhere despite covering vast stretches of the Dark Continent. And whatever visual work that Yates is doing is often undercut by the wildly inconsistent CG work. Some of it is very good, such as the flashback sequences showing Tarzan’s upbringing with the apes. But there are other moments, such as a sequence where Tarzan, Williams and some natives are running through the jungle traversing on wide tree branches, where the actors are very poorly integrated with the computer generated environment.