An unmitigated, excitement-bereft disaster, The Legend of Tarzan marries the very worst tenets of spectacle-based blockbuster entertainment to a wholly abominable ringer of a script in this haphazard attempt to jump-start a franchise whose existence should never have made it past the very first boardroom meeting. Unconvincing characterization and stupendously dull scene work are overwhelmed by eye-pestering CGI with no conviction to call its own that assaults the viewer, who is turn is already forced to reckon with a dramatically barren, entirely overblown, infuriatingly retread plot. The result is a vine-swinging affront to adventure cinema that fails to even once justify why it was made and who it was made for.
Brooding and dark with adult-tinged “humor”, The Legend of Tarzan is that rare 180 million dollar movie that seemingly appeals to none. Children in the audience will find the fierce rain-forest creatures savage and frightening – all part and parcel of Tarzan’s overwhelmingly unwelcoming tone – while adults will find themselves snickering at the wholly ludicrous nature of just about everything contained with its feeble 110 minutes. From its laugh-inducing dialogue – including a thorough subplot devoted to Tarzan’s ability to ape different species’ mating calls – to its hysterical visual effects – Alexander Skarsgård‘s CGI hands, physics-insulting gorilla v. man fights – The Legend of Tarzan fundamentally misunderstands what it is that piques audience interest. It’s always a full hectare behind and often swinging straight for a tree. Aside from some high-flying computer animated set pieces – which in and of themselves are but short improvements on Shia Labeouf’s much-maligned Crystal Skull monkey antics – there’s nothing here that will prove more than the briefest of distractions even for the most jejune of viewers.
The Legend of Tarzan is the kind of movie that will only work for those unfamiliar with movies. The tropes are piled on heavy and thick with everything from Indiana Jones to Avatar lending its narrative framework for Tarzan to pilfer from. The stilted dialogue is so asinine and basic you’d expect screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer made each bit up an hour or so before shooting. An aside from Margot Robbie – who almost undoes all of the goodwill built up for her in the three years since Wolf of Wall Street – snidely mocks the villainous Leon Rom’s (Christoph Waltz plagiarizing his own prior performances) mustache in what may be the year’s worst takedown. “You know, it’s longer on the right side,” she flashes her eyes and this dangerous bureaucrat (who, it must be added, wields an impervious spiderweb rosary as a weapon) saunters down a staircase, clearly embarrassed.
Our screening had the good fortune of a seizing patron (which caused the film to pause for a good 25 minutes as she was escorted from the theater) which meant that we got to see this particular scene, alongside its notably horrendous CGI blue butterfly fluttering about, run twice. Already dozed by the embarrassing irregularities at play, I paid close attention to the aforementioned mustache and let me be the first to report: it is precisely the same length on either side. Irreconcilably lazy bits like this serve to define the apathetic energy of Tarzan. Forget narrative consistency from one scene to the next, they can’t even expel cognitive dissonance going tête-à-tête.
The framework for the story itself is baffling. Serving as a sort of introduction to the jungle-born brute, The Legend of Tarzan begins a decade after the titular character emerged from his feral kingdom of flora and fauna. He’s left the mantle of Tarzan behind – he goes by John Clayton now – and has since reclaimed a Lordship in England where he lives in a castle with Jane (Robbie) lamenting their stillborn child. So right out of the gate, Tarzan isn’t Tarzan. And he and Jane are bummed out about their dead would-be-baby. What better way to breathe life into a franchise?
We learn bits and bobs through trite flashbacks which only serves to infect the already poor pacing of this beast without offering anything of substance to contextualize this version of the character or what makes him unique. Cozad and Brewer fail to provide but one reason why we ought to give a flying fish about him. Our disinterest is amplified by gratuitous familiarity – both our assumed familiarity with the character and the character’s familiarity with just about each and every critter he encounters in the film. There’s hardly an encounter between Tarzan and the various CG beasties where the two don’t start rubbing their heads together. He often greets them with, “My old friend!” as well. Impressively beefy though Alexander Skarsgård is in the role, I can’t imagine even a bonafide Furry would ask for this doltish beastial congeniality.
Skarsgård cut his teeth as anti-hero Erik Northman on HBO’s once-popular True Blood. The Swedish actor slunk perfectly into the role employing his signature gaunt, Scandinavian physique and his brooding come-hither aura, both of which make him a head-scratching fit for the loin-clothed, Congolese king of the jungle. From a distance, his casting seemed odd-duck and, though properly jacked, it’s even more peculiar on the screen. Skarsgård makes for a glum action hero; a begrudging and moody slab of meat plopped in front of green screens. He is no joy to behold.
At least Sam Jackson seems to be enjoying himself as real life soldier and activist George Washington Williams. While the real Williams helped trounce King Leopold’s malevolent grasp on the Congo by unveiling the horrors at play under his command, Tarzan’s version is served up a tasty side dish of gorilla balls. You read that correctly: this American hero is treated to a “gag” in which he nearly suckles a salty sack of simian scrotum. And don’t forget, this one’s for kids!
Throughout his tenure on Harry Potter, director David Yates proved a fierce capacity for visual majesty. That visual majesty has seemingly dried up or gone to pasture here as The Legend of Tarzan is an ugly showcase of second-rate CG that’s even more grating and bothersome in 3D. It’s a monstrously expensive abomination that will surely land in the hard red; a true fail across the board. In this regard, the film is a legitimately tragic endeavor, one that proves that talent does not always translate. Even with a proven big-budget director who demonstrated vast potential, Yates’ first and only departure from the witching world proves to be a dreadful one indeed, painfully brooding, powerfully mundane and devoid of one iota of entertainment value.
CONCLUSION: From the laughable script to the horrible performances, bad computer-generated imagery to asinine action beats, ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ is a gravely unpleasant big-budget sedative. Without anything of narrative, visual or dramatic interest, this embarrassingly bad Warner Brothers project is one large, loud, dumb free fall that’ll have you yelling, “Watch out for that!”