If you do a search for Tarzan on IMDB, you’ll find exactly 200 titles. This search seemingly includes a number of obscure projects that have nothing to do with the King of the Jungle, such as Barzan and an Indian film dubbed Taarzan: The Wonder Car, which seems like a Knight Rider rip-off. Still, that number is particularly staggering, considering that the character himself is just over 100 years old, with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous creation first appearing in a magazine back in 1912. And yet, even with all of this lore and history, the powers that be still feel another Tarzan reboot is needed with this weekend’s The Legend of Tarzan. They are sorely mistaken.
I don’t consider myself a Tarzan aficionado or scholar whatsoever. I remember watching the 1984 film Greystoke when I was a wee lad in the 1980s, but the character itself was never one I was thoroughly obsessed with. The Legend of Tarzan does take a few steps in different directions with this character, cobbling together bits and pieces from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ later books, slightly altering Tarzan and Jane’s back story. What I didn’t fully realize until after the screening, was that this movie also puts the iconic Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) and Jane (Margot Robbie) into an actual historical setting, with a few characters based on actual people.
While I knew Samuel L. Jackson‘s character George Washington Williams was a real-life person, I didn’t realize that Christoph Waltz’s Leon Rom was an actual person, who had committed horrific atrocities in the Congo Free State throughout the 1880s and 1890s, before George Washington Williams exposed his work for Belgium’s King Leopold II. This backstory is tightly woven into the fabric of The Legend of Tarzan, with Tarzan (Alexnder Skarsgard) being lured back to his homeland of the Congo, where he was raised by the jungle animals from infancy after the death of his parents. In this story, Jane first encounters Tarzan when she is a young woman. Her father is sent to the Congo to teach English to the villagers, where Jane meets, falls in love with and eventually marries the jungle man.
Even though the weaving of an iconic fictional character into a historical story line is sufficiently impressive, the script by Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) is spotty, at best. The story’s pacing is fairly slow, and even though it was just 109 minutes, it felt like it could have been tightened up in a few places. We also never really get a clear picture as to why Tarzan and Jane left their modest African home, which Jane seems to resent somewhat. Sure, we see them in London living in the lap of luxury, but neither Tarzan/John Clayton nor Jane seem truly happy in London. The script is also littered with a slew of corny one-liners, although a few of them are actually kind of good.
I rather enjoyed Margot Robbie‘s spirited performance as Jane, but I was not impressed by Alexander Skarsgard‘s performance. Sure, he has the perfect look and washboard abs to play the King of the Jungle, but his personality and emotional depth in this movie is akin to a washboard itself, simply wooden. He does have his moments, but I was surprised at how emotionally vacant this character appeared to be, which doesn’t necessarily make sense when you take into account how “refined” he had become in London for nearly a decade. One of the other big problems I had with the movie is actually a combination of the acting, writing and storytelling, since all of these characters don’t “sound” like they’re in the late 1880s one bit. I was half-expecting any of them to just pull out a cell phone at any moment.
The Legend of Tarzan marks director David Yates first big-screen movie since 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, but he has also been pulling double duty, getting the Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them set for release on November 18. There had been rumors that The Legend of Tarzan was in “trouble” after the director had to leave during post-production to shoot. That rumor was never confirmed, but given how uneven the film plays at times, it wouldn’t be surprising if that report was true. While the story is essentially cohesive, it’s still rather boring at times. Maybe after this movie Hollywood can stop at an even 200 adaptations of Tarzan and let him live out the rest of his days away from the big screen. It seems, at this juncture anyway, that Warner Bros. really shouldn’t concentrate on a sequel here.