'Legend of Tarzan' looks great but can't hide its campy content
Posted July 2, 2016
Updated July 3, 2016
“THE LEGEND OF TARZAN” — 3 stars — Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Rory J. Saper, Christoph Waltz; PG-13 (sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue); in general release
“The Legend of Tarzan” feels like it’s being tugged between two worlds. In one, authenticity brings the African Congo to life in a misty, photogenic landscape set in the late 19th century. In the other, traditional Hollywood style looks to craft an exciting story about a man raised by gorillas.
The result is a film that is thoughtful, visually arresting and brimming with style but that sacrifices too much on the altar of entertainment to achieve its full potential. “The Legend of Tarzan” is a fun and gorgeous film, but while it strains for cinematic ambition, it’s still a movie about a guy swinging on vines through the jungle. And frankly, it could use a little more of the guy swinging on vines through the jungle.
The film opens well after the legend has been established. A crafty villain in a white hat named Leon Rom (played by Christoph Waltz, who specializes in crafty villains, with or without hats) is trying to cut a deal in the Congo for a wealth of diamonds. The local tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) agrees on one condition: Rom must bring him Tarzan.
Unfortunately, Tarzan, aka John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), is thousands of miles away in England, living with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and trying to forget about his odd upbringing (which we see in fleeting flashbacks). So when he is invited to visit the Congo by the Belgian King Leopold, he politely declines.
But an American diplomat named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) suspects that King Leopold is trying to turn the local population into slaves and convinces Clayton to join him on principle.
But the best laid plans of apes and men oft go astray, and soon after they visit their old African home (Jane was raised there as well), Rom intervenes, capturing Jane and chasing Clayton into the jungle with Williams. Thus, “Tarzan” becomes a less of a homecoming and more of a rescue mission to save the woman he loves.
A normal man can do impossible things to save the woman he loves, Jane says, but her husband is no normal man.
After the slow burn of the opening, “Tarzan’s” element of adventure picks up steam, as well as an increasing number of CGI animal supporting actors. Some are happy to see their old friend back in his old jungle stomping grounds, but others make Clayton prove that his time in England hasn’t softened him up too much.
Along the way, director David Yates, who helmed the final four Harry Potter films, balances an ethereal and mysterious tone against the action, trying to maintain a sense of authenticity while keeping the suspense and excitement level high. The results are mixed, but the visuals are stunning, racing from wide vistas to intimate, stylish close-ups that capture the wonders of the jungle in the wide eyes of its visitors.
Eventually, though, “Tarzan” still has a little more in common with Saturday afternoon adventures than high-minded cinema, and even a slavery subplot (which borrows heavily from a 21st-century perspective) can’t offset the periodic campiness of the shirtless hero swinging through the trees and surviving fistfights with gorillas.
Jackson’s presence is further evidence of the modern perspective, interpreting his character more as a Samuel L. Jackson vehicle than as a persona to be inhabited. Skarsgard, for his part, nails the brooding and the long hair and the cut abs, though it’s doubtful Yates actually used his voice for Tarzan’s trademark jungle battle cry.
Altogether, “The Legend of Tarzan” may look great and try to take itself seriously, but it's really just a popcorn movie at heart. Treated as such, it’s plenty of fun.
“The Legend of Tarzan” is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue; running time: 109 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.