The Legend of Tarzan
Not so Legendary

The saying goes that “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  We all know the legend of author Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan novels, about the boy raised in the jungle by gorillas.  The new film adaptation, The Legend of Tarzan, opens after the legend has already been printed and now the character must return to the jungle and re-establish the fact.  Whether or not he will be able to do that is never really in doubt.

Tarzan has fully acclimated to life in London, taking his rightful place as the Earl of Greystoke and insisting he be called by his rightful name, John Clayton III.  His adventures are already well-known, the subject of books and the source of amazement for kids all over the world.  He has been invited to return to the Congo by the Belgian king.  He is told that it is for a public relations tour, but there are ulterior motives at play.  The king has enlisted one of his top men, Leon Rom, to mine the country’s vast diamond resources, but those resources are guarded by a tribe of natives.  The leader agrees that they can have the diamonds, but only in exchange for the delivery of Tarzan himself.

Alexander Skarsgard as TarzanWhile Tarzan is reluctant to return to Africa, his wife Jane is thrilled.  She also grew up there as her father tutored some of the locals and she became a beloved part of their extended family.  It is she who convinces Tarzan that they need to return… she and an American named George Washington Williams who is determined to stop the slave trade that he is convinced still goes on in the Congo.  When they encounter Rom and his men, Jane is kidnapped and Tarzan must return to the deep recesses of the jungle to save her.

The plot is conventional and nothing in the movie really comes as a surprise.  Tarzan’s backstory is told in flashbacks which do little to serve the primary plotline, but are a key part to any Tarzan story.  They mostly serve as a reminder, though, that what most audiences were probably expecting when they walked into a showing of a movie called The Legend of Tarzan was not what they ended up getting.  They didn’t get the legend.  They got the guy who used to be the legend.  It is the same problem that Ridley Scott had with his Robin Hood movie in 2010, which essentially served as a prequel to the Robin Hood story that everyone who came to see it was expecting.

That is not to say that every Tarzan movie needs to be the same Tarzan story.  After all, Burroughs himself wrote no less than twenty-three sequels to his original novel, sending his character on all sorts of adventures.  There are plenty of Tarzan stories to tell and even though this one turned out to be disappointing, the actual plot was not the problem.

The main problem with The Legend of Tarzan is the tone and its lack of consistency.  Like some recent superhero movies, the film takes itself far too seriously.  This would be fine if what we were seeing matched that tone, but a lot of what we see comes off as rather silly.  Most notably are some of the interactions with the animals, the overuse of slow-motion, and some dizzying navigation through the trees that worked well in Disney’s 1999 animated version, but here in live-action 3D just becomes rather nauseating.   Even in what should be simple dialogue scenes, the camera circles around the characters in a frenzy. It is supposed to ramp up the tension, but when the scene itself and the characters within it don’t match the intensity, it just comes off as over-directing.

The dialogue is often silly, with Margot Robbie, as Jane, and Christoph Waltz, as Rom, getting the worst of it, which sometimes leaves you wondering why the actors did not question the lines before they went with them.  Waltz’s villainous character seems a perfect fit for the actor and is right in line with the roles he won Oscars for playing in Quentin Tarantino movies, but without the Tarantino dialogue it just does not work as well.  For his part, Alexander Skarsgard is an okay Tarzan, but by no means will his portrayal define the character for years to come.

The only actor who seems to be in on the fact that this movie might turn out to be a little goofy is Samuel L. Jackson, who plays George Williams.  Jackson, as per usual, has fun with his role, and that is nowhere more apparent than in the scene in which he must literally take a dive.  Of course, the simple idea that his character survives some of the things that happen to him in this movie just add to the film’s unintentionally goofy tone.

With the advances in motion capture performance technology and computer effects, it seems Hollywood should be ready to deliver a stand-out Tarzan movie.  Unfortunately, Legend of Tarzan features some shockingly bad computer generated effects and quickly falls short of what audiences should be expecting.

The Legend of Tarzan is rated PG-13 for “sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue.”  There are a couple of tasteless jokes that seem out of place and some violent encounters between man and man as well as man and beast, but a lack of a lot of blood keeps this to the PG-13 rating.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of The Legend of Tarzan.