As much as Superman is credited with being the world’s first true archetypal superhero (or Doc Savage, depending on your definition), one could argue that the first character that paved the way for more larger-than-life superhero characters is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan. Tarzan is a character with over a century of history, since he first made his literary debut in 1912 novel, Tarzan of the Apes, being one of the first heroic characters of the 20th Century to display implied superhuman capabilities, and, strangely enough, he also went on to be one of pop culture’s first male sex icons. Given such a long and storied history, it’s no wonder that Tarzan has seen more film adaptations than most other literary icons, even to this day, and is probably one of the most frequently-adapted non-Shakespeare properties in the public domain. Now, we have our latest Tarzan adaptation; Warner Bros.’ The Legend of Tarzan.
Warner Bros. has been trying to fill a small franchise vacuum in their movie lineup lately, as they try to iron out the kinks in the DC Extended Universe, and have resolved the lucrative story arcs of both the Harry Potter and Middle-earth film sagas for now (excluding this November’s return to the Harry Potter universe in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), leaving them without many of their recent major movie franchise tentpoles, especially after losing former blockbuster partner, Legendary Pictures to Universal recently. To try and plug the gaps in their blockbuster lineup, Warner Bros. has been relying gradually more heavily on public domain properties in recent years, as if they’re biding their time before they can set up more true tentpoles like the various DC movies, and Fantastic Beasts. This has however created the feeling that many of these public domain-adapted blockbusters are stopgap movies that are temporarily tiding Warner Bros. over, and sadly, that feeling still lingers with The Legend of Tarzan.
To be fair, The Legend of Tarzan is a lot better than Pan, Warner Bros.’ previous attempt to make a blockbuster out of a public domain property, and one that didn’t turn out very well. Among the literal of sea of Tarzan movies made since 1918’s direct Tarzan of the Apes adaptation however, The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t stand out all that much. The movie is pretty stylish, and it’s serviceable as far as Summer blockbusters go, but it’s yet another disposable Summer flick to follow the similarly forgettable Independence Day: Resurgence from the previous weekend, with not enough distinction in its personalities and storyline to truly separate itself from the pack in the end.
The Legend of Tarzan does make an effort to be distinct at least, in that it takes place after the Tarzan-themed storylines that many would associate the character. Alexander Skarsgard’s Tarzan has since abandoned his roots in the African jungle to become a fully civilized nobleman in England, and has become quite comfortable living among humans. Regular love interest, Jane Porter is also already married to Tarzan, with Margot Robbie’s Jane quickly becoming established as a shrewd and intelligent woman who longs for adventure even more than her surprisingly domesticated husband. On paper, it’s not a bad setup for a 21st Century Tarzan movie, and the opening moments of The Legend of Tarzan do show some promise in terms of how the characters are portrayed.
Sadly though, this promising new direction quickly gives way to a storyline that fails to get much out of the personalities, and doesn’t allow them to be as interesting as they could be. Skarsgard looks the part of Tarzan for sure, but his Tarzan is never truly allowed to grapple with a real conflict between his present civility and his wild roots, and when Jane is inevitably captured by the villain, he just immediately leaps into action, and forgets about his desire to stay at home. Margot Robbie does manage a few really good scenes with Jane, on the bright side, with a standout scene being a tense dinner with Christoph Waltz’s main villain, Leon Rom, where she shows off how resourceful and clever she really is, but she spends almost the entire movie stashed away. This feels like a waste, and it might have been better to have Jane be a much more active part of the storyline, rather than being a quasi-damsel-in-distress who is independent and strong, but still ultimately leaves the real work to the guys.
Speaking of Waltz, he’s one of the best villain actors in Hollywood, but The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t craft much of a personality for him to work with. Waltz is just left to play Leon Rom as yet another polite, chillingly soft-spoken antagonist that is completely flat, and is motivated by something that’s disappointingly dull. His right-hand man, Captain Kerchover, played by Legends of Tomorrow’s Casper Crump, is similarly uninteresting, and is simply a by-the-book thug. There’s even a third strong villain actor, Djimon Hounsou, portraying yet another flat villain, a tribal chief with a grudge against Tarzan, and yet again, his character is cardboard. There’s a hint at an interesting connection to this character regarding a tragic event in Tarzan’s past, but the movie never properly fleshes it out. None of the character relationships feel well strung together, with personalities just running into each other at the whims of the script. This really deflates the villains, and feels like a big waste of a trio of fine villain actors.
Surprisingly, the biggest standout in the cast of The Legend of Tarzan is Samuel L. Jackson, who was barely marketed for some odd reason. Despite appearing to have a small part in the trailers, Jackson’s character actually plays a key role in the movie, as George Washington Williams, the main ally to Tarzan throughout much of the story. Jackson, along with Robbie, is one of the only actors who is truly bothering to really have fun with his part, being by far the most energetic and charismatic presence in the story. Williams also injects some welcome comic relief into a storyline that is surprisingly overwrought, considering how surprisingly basic the stakes end up being, and he’ll be the main personality to watch the movie for.
The Legend of Tarzan is headlined by a really fantastic cast, but most of them aren’t put to that great of use, sadly. The looks of the characters are captured well, and at least Robbie and Jackson are especially entertaining, with Robbie making the most of what she’s been given in a simplistic female lead role, but there’s just too little to invest in with these personalities. They’re too flat and dull for the most part. Without Jackson around to provide some welcome fun to proceedings, this movie really would have been a slog.
If there’s one thing that definitely feels pretty off about The Legend of Tarzan, it’s the storyline, which feels a little faulty. The movie begins with this intriguing, if somewhat dry storyline about King Leopold of Belgium getting dominion over the minerals of The Congo in the 19th Century, then spending a bunch of money to develop a foothold in the region, which gets Belgium in debt, negatively affecting the country’s economy, and yeah, you’re already bored, aren’t you? You can tell that there’s effort being made to make a serious, credible modern Tarzan plot, and one that cleverly ties into the modern perception of the time period, but it’s over-explained, and doesn’t do much to grab audiences that don’t already love this character.
Whatever interesting ideas are brought up within this plot are quickly overshadowed and just come apart, as the movie ultimately just boils down to some villain grabbing Jane, and Tarzan (along with George) having to rescue Jane. That’s it. That’s 90% of most Tarzan-themed storylines. Even Disney’s animated Tarzan movie had a more interesting and unique storyline in the end, and that’s pretty disappointing. The Legend of Tarzan clearly has a lot of cool ideas behind it, but it never actually properly develops any of them, nor does it let any of them truly simmer. This results in a story that feels like it quickly throws up its hands with its attempts at a revised direction for the character, and for all of its clear intelligence, it sadly just boils down to the usual song and dance for Tarzan, for better or for worse.
The Legend of Tarzan is helmed by David Yates, best known as the director of the latter four Harry Potter movies, as well as this November’s distant prequel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Yates is outstanding when it comes to creating engrossing worlds that are rich in atmosphere, and that continues to be true in The Legend of Tarzan. Even when the story and characters don’t perfectly engage, the world of the movie definitely does, with The Congo leaping to life in a very potent, immersive way.
Another element of The Legend of Tarzan that Yates helms very well are the movie’s handful of action scenes. These action elements feel imposing and grand in scale, and they also add a few welcome moments of fun in a somewhat uninteresting storyline. The way Yates shoots the action is very visceral, and the fearsome might of The Congo’s vicious creatures is perfectly captured, with sublime camera work and exceptional choreography. If The Legend of Tarzan stands tallest for one particular element, it’s the slick sense of modern Hollywood style, which this movie is absolutely dripping with!
Despite the atmospheric, action-packed strengths behind the direction however, Yates still can’t do all that much with a script that doesn’t have all that much meat on its bones. The performances range a bit in quality, and you can tell who Yates seems to work with best from behind the camera, namely Robbie and Jackson. Too much of the necessary narrative weight just isn’t present in The Legend of Tarzan though, with Yates managing to put together a very gorgeous movie that nonetheless feels disappointingly hollow.
The composer choice for The Legend of Tarzan is very odd. Rupert Gregson-Williams, the regular composer for Happy Madison (no, seriously), does the score for The Legend of Tarzan, which leads me to wonder if Warner Bros. somehow mixed up the Gregson-Williams brother that they actually wanted. Isn’t it Harry that does these blockbuster productions? Oh well, whatever. In any case, the score here is pretty unremarkable. There’s an interesting action tune or two, but most of the music is pretty limp, and doesn’t add a whole lot to the production.
The rest of the audio work is fairly solid though, especially in an IMAX theatre, and other such premium formats. The enormous fury behind both the jungle creatures and the human weapons is excellently captured, giving the movie an effects-driven heft that the rest of the story doesn’t manage to replicate. This great audio work further contributes to the movie’s handful of good action scenes all the more, which is why it’s a shame that the storytelling couldn’t measure up to the movie’s powerful atmosphere.
Like I said, Yates’ visual direction is pretty impressive in The Legend of Tarzan. The environments look great, and the costume work is pretty good too, helping to immerse viewers in the period setting. Some of the animal effects are a little dodgy, with Tarzan’s ape family sometimes looking particularly suspect in terms of not effectively looking like the real thing, but the practical effects that incorporate animals and other such jungle hazards certainly look better. Yates’ direction does a lot to enhance the visual effects, along with the natural beauty of The Congo, leading to a slickly-produced Tarzan movie that is immersive and captivating to watch, even when it’s wanting in the narrative department.
The movie’s atmosphere gets a noticeable boost when it’s seen in 3D as well. The 3D isn’t anything mind-blowing, but it does help the movie feel at least a bit more gripping, especially in IMAX 3D. Disappointingly though, the movie isn’t really well-optimized for IMAX, with the IMAX screen presentation being pretty disappointing, and the IMAX speakers being used to pretty good effect, though probably not enough to justify the extra dollars. This movie’s ideal presentation in theatres will probably be a matter of preference. Those who prefer flat 2D movies will not lose much by just seeing the movie that way, though those who enjoy 3D movies will enjoy the small atmospheric upgrade that the 3D presentation offers, just as those who want to go all out and see the movie in IMAX 3D won’t be blown away, but will at least appreciate the audio boost.
Tarzan and his world have truly never looked better than they do in The Legend of Tarzan, even if not every CG element is wholly convincing. In a year where Disney also gave us the stellar and visually stunning live-action remake of The Jungle Book however, the bar is set pretty high for a setting like this, and the visuals in The Legend of Tarzan might have stood out a bit more, if Disney’s live-action The Jungle Book hadn’t preceded it a couple of months beforehand. Yates still does give the atmosphere a lot of engrossing power in his direction, though even among most of the other Summer blockbusters of 2016 that have released already, The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t manage to be the best, even if it manages to look respectably modern and polished.
The Legend of Tarzan is one of the better attempts by Warner Bros. to try and make a blockbuster out of a public domain property, and is definitely better than 2013’s previous and dismal Tarzan movie that came out of Germany, but the movie doesn’t pack enough strength to truly make it memorable. It’s yet another filler blockbuster that’s occupying a week before we can look forward to more noteworthy Summer movie projects like Ghostbusters, Star Trek Beyond and Suicide Squad.
If you like the character of Tarzan, then you’ll enjoy The Legend of Tarzan, but for anyone else, there isn’t too much of a draw here, especially with so many more ambitious Summer movies coming right around the corner in July and August. The Legend of Tarzan is overall satisfactory, but it could have made a bigger splash in its attempt to bring the character into the 21st Century in a new live-action rendition, after the 2000’s have so far only produced animated movies. There isn’t much more to say about it. The Legend of Tarzan is perfectly acceptable, but it just doesn’t stand apart from the glut of other Tarzan movies over the past century, let alone most of this year’s other Summer blockbusters.
- Robbie and Jackson are standouts in the cast
- Yates' sharp visual direction creates potent atmosphere
- Action scenes are powerful and exciting
- Too many flat, shallow characters
- Storyline is dull and fails to engage
- Fails to capitalize on its smart, modern ideas for Tarzan