It's been a rough couple of years for Edgar Rice Burroughs.
First the late pulp author's "John Carter of Mars" series got a belated big screen adaptation from Disney in 2012 that flopped so spectacularly (unfairly, I'd argue) that the phrase "another John Carter" has practically become the accepted vernacular for any movie where a massive budget coupled with audience apathy has entirely predictable, disastrous results at the box office. In that sense (and somewhat ironically), Warner Bros.' The Legend of Tarzan, the newest screen incarnation of Burroughs most well-known creation, is betraying all the telltale signs of being, yep, another John Carter.
Directed by David Yates (he of the back-half of Warners' voluminous Harry Potter catalogue), this take on the Tarzan myth attempts to mine new franchise gold out of the character's omnipresence in our collective cultural pantheon. After all, the story of the legendary Ape Man, orphaned as child in Africa and raised by the great apes, is just one of those things that everyone knows. However, the film seems to be at a loss to explain why we know it. It feels curiously out of step with the larger-than-life superheroes that our blockbusters have conditioned us to expect of late, and while this was a golden chance to highlight why Tarzan endures, the filmmakers frustratingly let the opportunity pass.
In the role of Tarzan (a.k.a. Lord John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke) this time is True Blood actor Alexander Skarsgård, who certainly has the physicality for the part, not to mention the angsty knitted brow we expect of all our heroes in the new millennium. His wife, the anachronistically free-spirited Jane Porter is played by Margot Robbie (a few months before Suicide Squad sends her careening into the stratosphere). While Clayton and the Mrs., famed far and wide for their jungle exploits, have settled into a life of domestic tranquility in 1890s England, they're asked to return to Africa at the behest of American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), to investigate human rights violations by Belgian King Leopold in Congo.
And so, Tarzan and Jane somewhat reluctantly (he more than she) make the trip, where they soon learn of a massive human trafficking scheme involving diamonds and bridges being orchestrated at Leopold's behest by the evil Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz). Will this state of affairs prompt Lord Clayton to drop his civilized trappings and reclaim his role as Lord of the Jungle? Eventually, yeah, but first we get lots of flashbacks to Tarzan's origin, how he met Jane, etc. and lots of panoramic shots of the jungle veldts and forests, with lots of CGI animals and foliage ladled in for good measure. Oh, and there's also lots of anguished shots of Skarsgård pondering whether this is the right moment to strip down to his skivvies.
Written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, The Legend of Tarzan is more than ten years in the making, with various directors including Stephen Sommers and Guillermo Del Toro having flirted with the franchise reinvention before Warner Bros. settled on Yates. And while the director makes a visually rich film that lives up to his reputation, it's hamstrung by being unable to quite find the right tonal footing to occupy. It's trying to do the "realistic" Tarzan that we previously got in director Hugh Hudson's sprawling epic Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes from 1984 (starring an especially ape-like Christopher Lambert as the Ape Man), while also incorporating the dizzying zero gravity jungle antics of the 1999 animated version from Disney.
These approaches feel inherently at odds with each other without more of an attempt to link them together. This is doubly a shame because the sprawling library of Tarzan fiction both during and after Burroughs goes big on the kind of high-stakes, high-adventure we've never really gotten a true representation of in a Tarzan flick (the 1930s Johnny Weissmuller films are constrained by their budgets, while Greystoke -- which I like -- stops just before it becomes a "real" Tarzan movie). Not helping matters is some of the worst CGI I've seen in a big budget release in awhile. Maybe I'm spoiled after being utterly awed by Disney's Jungle Book a few months ago, but the effects here feel like they're a render or two away from where they needed to be.
As to Skarsgård in the title part, there's no doubt that he looks the part, but I'm not entirely sure whether he's just emotionally disengaged from the proceedings, or he's trying really hard to play the part as written. As it is, he grunts and glares effectively (which I suppose is par for the course with Tarzan) but the construction of the character feels disappointingly thin. (That said, I did think a bit of early exposition how his bone structure had adapted to walking on fours and living in the trees is as good an explanation as any for his exaggerated strength.) Robbie fares best in the cast, while Jackson is Jackson and Waltz is Waltz. Both turn in dependable, if not particularly surprising turns as fictionalized versions of real life people.
In fact the incorporation of real historical figures into a fictional narrative is yet another way the storyline is very reminiscent of 1998's The Mask of Zorro. That's not a bad thing, by the way. I remember watching that movie and feeling energized. Excited that this classic hero had been reinvigorated for a modern audience. I even felt that way (though I admit I may have been the only one) after 2013's The Lone Ranger (Disney's first post-John Carter "another John Carter"). I didn't come away feeling much of anything after seeing The Legend of Tarzan, though. While it isn't particularly bad, it's also doesn't really do anything to stay with you. What should have been a triumphant reclamation of one of the last century's most indelible icons becomes just another reminder that all heroes eventually fade away. C
For more thoughts on The Legend of Tarzan, plus an in-depth discussion of Independence Day: Resurgence, check out the latest MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: