There are treasures deep in the misty mountains of the Congo, untold riches that the Belgian king will stop at nothing to find. Fortunately, there is a man who will sell out his tribe and his way of life to lead you to these treasures. All you have to do is bring him the man. The man they call Tarzan.
Set partly in London and mostly in Congo circa 1890, The Legend of Tarzan is the long-awaited sequel to the smash hit that launched the careers of Alexander Skarsgård and Margot Robbie. The movie propelled them into bed and into the tabloids while the movie steadily climbed the ranks of the box office elite. Now Tarzan and Jane are finally back on the silver screen, and fans are frothing at the mouth while the experts predict that this Tarzan sequel will break box office records left and right. What set pieces from the movie will inspire new rides at the ever-popular Tarzan World? And when, oh when, will audiences finally meet the Son of Tarzan?
Not a word of this is true. The last successful cinematic adaption of Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous character was Disney’s animated film from 1999. Though massively popular in the ’30s and ’40s, the character of Tarzan has been somewhat dormant. Burroughs—who also penned the John Carter of Mars series adapted into the unfairly derided and maligned John Carter (2012)—hasn’t exactly been Hollywood’s go-to, but his material is well-known, his characters iconic. Maybe, just maybe, they can jump-start this franchise and get this whole Tarzan thing going again.
Well, if they want to do that, they are going to need a better movie. The Legend of Tarzan begins several years after Tarzan left the jungle, and now Tarzan/John Clayton III (Skarsgård) is a refined English lord living a whole continent and a half away from the jungle. That jungle now belongs to the Belgian crown, and Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is searching for the diamonds that will bail his country out its enormous debts. Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) will lead Rom to them, but first, he wants the head of Tarzan.
A royal invitation to the Congo is extended to Tarzan/Clayton, who doesn’t want to go, and Jane (Margot Robbie), who really does. An American mercenary, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), needs them to go; Williams believes that the Belgians are hiding slave labor in the Congo and needs proof. To get proof, he will need a guide. He needs Tarzan.
They go, they are attacked, they are separated. Tarzan runs into some old ape friends. The bad guys kidnap Jane. Williams makes a lot of wisecracks. A character with a long-held grudge appears. All the while, the movie constantly flashes back to Tarzan’s formative years, presenting these moments like they are scenes from a previous movie. It’s routine pulp fiction stuff. The sort of thing that is fun and exciting when one’s tongue is planted firmly in their cheek. But in Legend, director David Yates presents it all too seriously and far too poorly.
After helming the final four Harry Potter installments, Warner Brothers figured that Yates was a sure bet and handed him over the keys to their Tarzan franchise. But no one came to see Harry Potter because of Yates—who continues to be one of the more infuriating directors working today. Yates has no sense of space as the camera swirls this way and that, hoping to instill some, any, sort of excitement and dynamics into a scene. Even more frustrating is his insistence on inserting incongruous and unmotivated close-ups, often out of focus, of objects that may or may not relate to this scene, that scene, or any scene at all. Last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road (d. George Miller) was a triumph of construction and clarity and rightly celebrated as such. But it takes something as messy and cumbersome as Legend of Tarzan to see how difficult it is to construct something that makes coherent sense.
The performances are no better. Skarsgård is wooden, Waltz sleepwalks, Hounsou is underused, and Jackson is, well, Jackson. If not for Robbie, there would be few redeeming qualities in Legend.
Maybe requiring The Legend of Tarzan to resurrect the Tarzan brand in 2016 is a bit much to ask, but why return to this story and these characters in the first place? With its popular Planet of the Apes franchise, Warner Brothers must have thought that audiences wanted more CGI jungle animals. And Tarzan, everybody knows Tarzan right? Isn’t that enough? Apparently not.
The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Directed by: David Yates
Written by: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer
Based on the Tarzan stories created by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Produced by: David Barron, Tony Ludwig, Alan Riche, Jerry Weintraub
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou
Warner Brothers, Rated PG-13, Running time 109 minutes, Opens July 1, 2016