In this modern blockbuster world of action-loaded superhero origin stories and effects-heavy mass destruction epics, The Legend of Tarzan is a decidedly old-fashioned adventure, one that picks up well into the titular hero’s tale and takes its time building to the thrills, pausing often to develop a sweet love story in the spaces nowadays reserved for splashy set pieces. It’s a pleasant way to approach the latest and largest Tarzan movie in decades, even if the movie betrays its own virtues by shoehorning in some ugly flashbacks throughout the pic and going overboard with junky CGI when the action finally kicks in.
This is the head-scratching contradiction of The Legend of Tarzan, that it’s the product of decent decisions later torpedoed by bad ones. The movie ends up in the middle of the quality spectrum, refreshing as a warm-hearted return to pricey romantic adventure, but frustrating as a clearly studio-tampered product that blows its budget on a whole jungle’s worth of shoddy digital trinkets.
It’s extremely odd that, in 2016, a new Tarzan movie fares better with the cuddly love story than it does with the animated vine swinging. Modern effects technology would seem to be the main reason for a studio to mount the umpteenth adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famed series of Ape Man novels, but the digitally aided action sequences here are significantly more cartoonish than even the ones found in Disney’s actual cartoon version from seventeen years ago.
The pitiful visuals are tough to accept in the wake of Jon Favreau’s new Jungle Book adaptation from a couple months ago, a movie that stunningly transformed L.A. soundstages into a sumptuously wild playground in what amounted to a bold statement about the current potential heights of CGI artistry.
No one is going to praise the effects in The Legend of Tarzan, because while some mostly submerged crocodiles and a hungry hippo look decent, the main effects sequences, ranging from Tarzan swinging around on things like a limp noodle to a stampede of water buffalo that destroy whatever CGI crap is in their path, will have everyone questioning where the $180 million budget got blown. Misspending all that cash is a rather baffling aspect of this picture. Director David Yates generally made the most of the big budgets he was allocated for the four Harry Potter sequels he previously helmed, but clearly the accounting got out of hand here.
Despite the reckless spending, Yates’s movie still has a sense of large-scale ambition to it. There’s a whole menagerie of exotic animals on display and while some of them are pretty goofy looking in this age of digital photorealism, the movie insists, rather understandably, on making the animals and Tarzan’s relationship with them a priority.
So when the domesticated Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) puts down his British teacup to return to the wilds of Africa on a shady invitation from the Congo-controlling Belgian king, the first thing he does is have a cuddle session with a trio of lions he apparently knew as cubs. It’s somewhat comical to see Skarsgård rubbing against some CGI lions in what is meant to play as a tender moment, but it’s so appropriately Tarzan-esque that it feels more like a moment worth applauding than jeering.
Tarzan has begrudgingly brought along his feisty wife Jane (Margot Robbie, a veritable treasure trove of charm), who in this version also grew up in Africa. This alteration of the character’s history allows for some hokey flashbacks depicting the initial encounters between then-jungle-dwelling Tarzan and an assertive Jane, but that’s an acceptable trade-off for having a Jane whose emotional connection to Tarzan’s world runs deeper than merely tagging along with her husband. Africa means as much to Jane as it does to Tarzan, which puts the couple dramatically in sync.
Since this is an old-fashioned throwback of sorts, the villains are pure evil, as unredeemable a bunch of jerks as any who have graced the screen. At one point, a flock of flamingos fly prettily across a river that the bad guys are traversing and after giving us a moment to appreciate the pop of the pink against the green and brown backdrop, Yates cuts to a closeup of flamingo guts being chopped up by a villainous cook. At least the director is willing to poke fun at how dastardly he’s made his antagonists.
Unfortunately, though, Yates lazily casts Christoph Waltz as King Leopold’s villainous emissary who is on the hunt for a large diamond deposit. Waltz’s shtick has become increasingly easy to categorize. If he works with Tarantino, great! If he doesn’t, lame! He’s a good enough actor that he can still make moments work in a lesser script, but his performance here is mostly a waste of his talents and too blandly recycled to make the menace drip with any sense of satisfaction.
Between the Waltz casting and the generally generic look of his nasty cronies, the villains are individually uninteresting, but they feel particularly at home in a Tarzan flick when viewed as a whole. They’re truly treated as invaders at every turn and it becomes a key point of the action that their manmade structures be destroyed, that every aspect of their presence be eradicated. That’s been a staple of Tarzan movies since the very early days of the screen franchise, which are coincidentally the early days of cinema itself.
It’s elements like this that make The Legend of Tarzan tough to dislike and rather easy to root for. The movie is so in tune with the character’s filmic history that it feels more honourable than embarrassing. For all its flaws, it’s essentially innocent fun, but smart enough to inject its themes of home, legacy, love, and family into every nook and cranny of its narrative. It’s much more invested in the romance of its two leads than in the evil of its villains and it aids the movie greatly that Skarsgård and Robbie share some sweet chemistry together.
While not being a manly romantic, Skarsgård’s Tarzan stands tall as one of the more subdued big screen heroes of late. There’s something freshly charming about seeing his calm, gentle demeanour matched with such ab-tastic physical prowess. He’s convincingly content living his posh life in England and yet also believably brawny when it comes time to face the treacherous challenges of Congolese jungles again. Skarsgård plays the balance between Tarzan’s domesticated side and animalistic urges rather subtly, which allows for a comfortable consistency.
Robbie is unfortunately stuck playing a damsel in distress role for much of the running time, but she doles out some sassy one-liners with aplomb and manages to take matters into her own hands at certain critical junctures. It’s not a great role, but she brings so much personality to the adventure that the bland predictability of her predicament is less off-putting than it probably should be.
Comic relief arrives courtesy of Samuel L. Jackson, who puts his usual shtick to serviceable use as an American out of his element looking to take down Waltz’s baddie. His humour certainly adds a modern touch to a generally old-fashioned ride, which works in the lightly silly vein that it’s deployed.
But most of all, The Legend of Tarzan is at its best when it’s tied tight to the past. The clunkily inserted origin flashbacks, the shoddy CGI animation in an age where many digital effects are practically seamless, and the overly familiar, utterly uninspired villain are all big problems that can’t be ignored and yet they don’t take away too terribly from what actually works. This is a movie built on the memories of yesteryear, when romance was as important as action and the hero was stoic and mostly silent. The old-fashioned approach doesn’t work for all movies or even most nowadays, but it certainly works for Tarzan. Yates seems to understand that, so while he’s made a jumbled jungle jaunt, he’s at least kept the soul of the series respectfully pure.