The vine-swinging character of Tarzan first appeared on the silver screen nearly 100 years ago, in 1918. Which is perhaps why this 2016 reboot, “The Legend of Tarzan,” feels woefully out of touch. There’s only so much updating that can be done to an Edgar Rice Burroughs tale about an Englishman raised in the African jungles by gorillas, a wild man who communes with animals. And who, exactly, was clamoring for a reboot of this property?
Writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer have decided that the way to bring Tarzan into a contemporary sensibility is to stuff his story inside a bizarre revisionist history fantasy, in which the native African Congolese tribes overthrow the exploitative Belgian colonialists.
Actor Alexander Skarsgard stars in “The Legend of Tarzan.” (Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros. Entertainment)
It allows Tarzan, a symbol of white cultural appropriation, to battle evil colonial exploiters, who would press the Congolese into slavery to further their empire. While it might make us feel better about Tarzan’s role in the jungle for a few escapist hours, don’t think for a second that King Leopold II of Belgium didn’t get away with pillaging the land and its people. It’s a pleasant idea but strangely naive in the way it rewrites history.
Enormous Swede Alexander Skarsgard doffs his shirt as the titular Tarzan, aka. Lord Greystoke, John Clayton III. The role has always required more physical than performance qualities (Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller is perhaps the most famous Tarzan from the 1930s and ’40s), and Skarsgard fits the bill -- lanky and muscled so outrageously that he walks stiffly. But he’s incredibly boring in this role. There’s no fire in his eyes, no wild abandon, no rakish sexiness.
Fortunately, he’s surrounded by Margot Robbie as his feisty wife, Jane, and Samuel L. Jackson as an American Civil War veteran, George Washington Williams, who has some stake in uncovering Leopold’s secret slave labor. Jackson does his usual routine, but it’s so welcome against the dour glowering of Skarsgard, who barely speaks, possibly due to his wonky British accent.
Actor Christoph Waltz stars in “The Legend of Tarzan.” (Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Leopold never appears in the film, with the villainy duties taken over by the meticulously menacing Austrian actor Christoph Waltz as his proxy, Leon Rom. He strikes a deal with Djimon Honsou’s vengeful Chief Mbonga to trade Tarzan for diamonds in order to make payments on Belgium’s defaulted loans. Loans and diamonds and gorillas and wildebeests, oh my!
The film, directed by David Yates who helmed “Harry Potter,” is stunningly shot, all sweeping vistas and spectacular combat, but the pacing of it feels so, so off. It seems as if it was hurriedly reedited until the last minute, chopped haphazardly into mincemeat, cutting between flashbacks of Tarzan’s experiences in the jungle as a child, which are mostly unnecessary, and the main storyline, which is rushed and underdeveloped. The timing of some of the events can be confusing, as well as other simple facts. Who named him Tarzan anyway? How did he figure out his family lineage?
This legend of Tarzan is, and always has been about a white savior figure, and no amount of politically correct representational politics can change that fact. Ultimately, this film feels both misguided and slapdash, and the good parts -- impressive CGI gorillas, Jackson’s humor, Robbie’s sass, or even Skarsgard’s abs – aren’t enough to muddle through this overly complicated and dull-as-dirt story. (TNS)
By Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service