"You may not like who you were, you may have enemies there, but you need to go home."
Since the first Tarzan movie was made 98 years ago there have been 52 other incarnations of the character. That must be disheartening for anyone attempting to create a definitive version becauase clearly 53 versions have come and gone and none of them have been successful enough to warrant a gap of more than two years between the story being reimagined or reinvented for the silver screen yet again. So is there anything that David Yates can bring to the story that the other 53 haven’t?
Since his days of swinging around on vines in the jungle, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) has since become civilised, living within the human world with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). However he is drawn back to the jungle when a scheme by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) forces him to reconnect with his primal instincts to save the jungle.
So as I said, when making a new Tarzan film you have to be sure that there is something worth making here, something new to show people, a new side of the myth to bring to life, a radically different interpretation or something even more inventive. ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ doesn’t really do any of those things. Instead what we get is a very conventional if not competently constructed recital of everything we associate with the character, again.
The titular ape man himself is handled fairly well be Skarsgard. There is some variation in his development and progression with this film compared to others, as where Tarzan is usually centred on discovering his own humanity this one is more focussed on reconnecting with his animalistic temperament. The 6.4 foot actor has no trouble embodying the physicality of Tarzan, when he swings through vines and climbs trees I believe in it, but it’s not as if he is treading any unexplored territory here and nor do we really have any emotional depth to this incarnation. Normally one could accept these kind of flaws or at the very least be slightly more lenient, but like I said we have had 53 versions of this story, maybe there simply is not room for anything new at this point.
In fact the rest of the cast are on a very similar level to Skarsgard. Their performances are comfortably decent and far from awful, I also would never accuse them of acting in a half-hearted manner as everyone is making a concerted effort. But as I said before, nothing here is really new or surprising. Christoph Waltz is playing what feels like a watered down version of Hans Landa which is fine but it’s not nearly as menacing, charming or sadistic as that character. His character also lacks clear motivation and a significant amount of depth that could have made proceedings much more interesting.
Margot Robbie is her usual sexy and spirited self (she’s going to be so great as Harley Quinn) that ultimately falls into the classic damsel in distress role, even the movie itself points this out at one point but does nothing to rectify it. Samuel L Jackson is also highly entertaining in his usual way, by this point the best description of his character is that he is Samuel L Jackson. None of the characters really invoked any kind of connection or empathy from me, possibly because any potentially emotional moments that might actually provide some much needed weight and development to the film are brushed over in favour of its grander thematic ambitions.
‘The Legend of Tarzan’ juggles some heavy concepts and questions in its narrative like when does exploration become exploitation? What is man’s place in nature? Are trousers more practical than loincloths? However sometimes its own grandeur prevents it from establishing a real connection with its own characters. And with multiple sub plots around the destruction of nature, slave trades and a revenge plot only for the whole thing to degenerate into a race to save Jane it can feel needlessly complicated.
Furthermore when John Favreau brought a jungle to life earlier this year with the power of digital animation it looked absolutely spectacular, fully realised and almost indistinguishable from the one physical actor in the film. Yates’ attempt isn’t nearly as polished or as impressive, it just goes to show how Favreau upped the ante for everyone in this department. However that being said, ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ is watchable and decent summer entertainment. Just don’t expect this version of Tarzan to be the one that defines the character in the silver screen, chances are high that in two years’ time we’ll be looking forward to another one.
A light-hearted and enjoyable but somewhat empty adventure.