If you’re going to remake Tarzan you’d better have a good reason, a good story, a good production and a good film. By and largely the disappointing The Legend of Tarzan fails on all four counts. Harry Potter director David Yates delivers a measure of traditional old-style entertainment but can’t disguise that this is a creaky, out-of-date adventure movie.
A somewhat miscast Alexander Skarsgård is an excellent, always welcome actor but he makes little headway in an admittedly under-written role as Tarzan, now living in England as the aristocratic John Clayton with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). An American, George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), wants to go with him as an emissary of the British Government back to the African Congo, where the Belgian King Leopold’s people are up to no good. Tarzan reluctantly agrees and a much-too-modern Jane insists on going too – because she misses Africa!
Enter the villain of the piece, played by the Euro villain de nos jours, Austrian double Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, in a hardly changed variant on his Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Dr King Schultz in Django Unchained (2012) and Blofeld in Spectre (2015), Why change the winning formula? It what Waltz is hired for.
Rom who works as an envoy for Leopold, is asked to capture and hand over Tarzan, ready for the kill by the bad natives, so he attacks and captures Tarzan and Jane at the village where they’ve arrived. But Tarzan escapes with Washington’s help. Jane’s in big trouble aboard Rom’s boat, so Tarzan finally sets out to rescue Jane by going across the jungle with Washington.
That’s it! Not much of a story, is it? It is certainly not one to get over-excited about, even if they try to flesh it out with Jane’s early feminism, and other out-of-their time ideas about the evils of colonialism and the need for respect for natural resources. Tarzan is just not a modern story. It needs to be left firmly in the Victorian past, where it’s located, and preferably left there for good.
If you cast real actors, as they have, you have to give them good work to work on. Skarsgård and Robbie don’t have that, though they work like the valiant troupers they are to try to disguise it. Jackson, weirdly, is cast in the comedy sidekick role, one that’s really unsuited to him. But he has a natural great sense of humour and makes it work. With modern-dialogue anachronistic lines, he’s lively and fun, which is just as well, because very little else is. Waltz is good value too, in his stereotyped colonial villain role. They’ve managed to demonise the Belgians here, so the English and Americans can this time not seem like the ruthless colonialisers they were. We’re the good guys this time! Wow!
Rory J Saper and Christian Stevens play younger versions of Tarzan at 18 and five years in pointless flashbacks explaining Tarzan’s back story that we all know already and simply messes the flow of the film. Djimon Hounsou plays Chief Mbonga, not much of a role, and token Brits Simon Russell Beale (Mr Frum), Jim Broadbent (Prime Minister) and Ben Chaplin (Captain Moulle) are not seen at their best, in Chaplin’s case not really seen at all.
The CGI is splattered everywhere, and spoils things, even the fights and vine swinging, as they look so fake. And the CGI images of landscapes and animals are often surprisingly weak and unconvincing too. Even the much-heralded digitally created gorillas aren’t really that great. Skarsgård’s jungle gym body may look amazing but it also looks like it is CGI-ed too.
It looks like a budget movie, but it cost $180 million, and its American take of $52 million must be a disappointment, so the hoped-for new franchise probably won’t be happening.
Remember Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)?
© Derek Winnert 2016 Movie Review
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