The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

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“My husband is no ordinary man.”

The Legend of Tarzan whelms us with a turbulent case of the overs and the unders, depicting a stunningly photographed story that’s scantily told, becoming a movie I could watch – and watch easily – but never recommend. That’s because this slow, locomotive film is absolutely zero fun to be had. Tarzan, the wild manimal, presents a well established character we should be able to get some entertainment value from. Not here, not in the desolation and the ruin and the bleak, not with these plexiglass people set against a green-screen backdrop. Tarzan means well by its long lineage of adaptations and does poorly by its future legacy.

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By most measures, director David Yates has tried his hardest with this epic. Do a double feature of this and his Harry Potter quadrumvirate and you’ll even notice identical shots. Therefore, his style is not the issue. It’s Edgar Rice Burroughs’ source material first published in 1912. While acceptable at the time, the blatantly racist comparisons between slave and beast do no favor to modern interpretations, and since The Legend of Tarzan chooses to address the issue head-on, its political agenda becomes even more incongruous because the only accepted “ape” is all white and brawny and English. Yates’ interpretation feels more derivative of Dracula than it does of the vine swinger with its grounded, cold, unmajestic point of view.

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The Legend of Tarzan just has too much drama, rooting against slavery and colonialism while also perpetuating the worst effects of both whitewashed efforts. It’s ineffective with its notions, setting up points here but countering them elsewhere through nullified spectacle. Things don’t add up. So that makes it hard to care about John Clayton/Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) as they adjust to life in London. But like nearly every film you will ever see, Tarzan revolves around home, and here it’s threatened by Belgium henchman Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) determined to enslave tribes and harbor jewels in hopes of rescuing his country and his king from financial decay. He’s a weak villain in a film that aspires to be more than the flavor of the week without the tang to do so.

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Tarzan reminded me of a lament from Warner Herzog’s documentary Burden of Dreams covering his tumultuous film Fitzcarraldo. “Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here.” The same goes for this movie, featuring a lead performance from Alexander Skarsgård that flexes muscles without a brain or a heart. Robbie plays a damsel, Jackson makes wisecracks, Waltz feels miscast. Combined with the serrated structure of the story, the odds are stacked against its success. What I remember most from the novel was Tarzan’s dexterous mitts. Calloused, rough, gargantuan in size. He could do anything with them. But The Legend of Tarzan is more concerned with the layman John Clayton than the ape-man. The iconic figure has both a pedestrian side and an extraordinary one. Why they didn’t explore the second option more is beyond me.

“The jungle consumes everything.”

Rating: 2 out of 5

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