Tarzan of the Apes, the first novel in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan series, was published in 1912 and critical analysis has written numerous times on how the novels did their part to perpetuate white-male superiority in colonial Africa. Numerous feature films and television shows have done their best since then to change Tarzan with the times. Director David Yates of Harry Potter (and the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them) takes his shot at a new incarnation of the loincloth-wearing superman of the jungle with The Legend of Tarzan.
John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), Viscount Greystoke and formerly Tarzan of the Apes, is living a happy life with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie). When he's asked by the Americans to go into the Belgian Congo and see if war crimes are being committed, Clayton, teaming up with George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) reluctantly goes. But the trip is part of a grander trap set by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) who plans on kidnapping Clayton and turning him over to an old adversary of the ape-man, Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou).
After the vitriol lobbed at last week's "white savior" film, Free State of Jones, it'll be interesting to see if The Legend of Tarzan suffers the same fate. Taking place eight years after Tarzan was civilized and brought back to England, Clayton wishes to remove himself from the infamy, calling himself John Clayton and wishing to remain in England. Yet it's impossible hearing lines meant to hurt Clayton's pride as being unintentionally racially charged; a small child asking Clayton "was your mother a monkey" just hits in the wrong place. And the point is belabored through caricatured depictions of African natives who fall into two camps - happy go-lucky tribespeople rounded up and used as pawns by the baddies or "savages" wearing animal pelts and covered in white powder like in Peter Jackson's King Kong. Actually, Jackson's King Kong is The Legend of Tarzan's aesthetic idol, from its mistily photographed jungle vistas to its villains.
Hoping to head off criticism of its racial components you have the undersold supporting role of Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams. Jackson, playing the Jules Winfield of the 1800s, is a welcome presence and, had he been blended more, could have given us a taste of what Die Hard in the jungle might have been like. Jackson shows up as a means of distancing the U.S. from the film's actions. Emphasis is made, via an overly lengthy text scroll in the beginning, that the events are post-Civil War and the film explains how events are contained to one area and one country. Sure, these historical issues won't bother the average viewer, but it's hard ignoring the continuation of tone-deaf depictions of minorities.
Because of the high expectations, and the very real possiblity this will be a one-off feature, the film balances a sequel and origin story. Current issues in Clayton's life remind him of his parents death (in a moment of pure omniscience), his childhood raised by apes, and his meeting with Jane, much of which is played with the hope you at least watched Disney's animated version. And though it's great that time isn't wasted, the set-up wanders so much that a more chronological presentation might have been to its benefit.
The plot has a herky-jerky start-and-stop motion as we're first introduced to Waltz's blase Rom, himself a direct rip-off of Disney feature's evil Clayton. Rom is the typical capitalist whose only aims are money and thus it's turned him into a bloodthirsty, lecherous scumbag willing to sell Tarzan up the river, kidnap Jane as leverage and off any poor tribesman who stands in front of him. Waltz, resting on his laurels, does little more than play the disaffected businessman without the smirking grin and sociopathic zeal, of his role in Inglourious Basterds. The see-saw of who is the real villain - Rom or Mbonga - ultimately gives the audience two pointless baddies whose only goal is to kill Tarzan.
Hounsou is pretty much wasted. To his credit, Hounsou as Mbonga does have far more motivation for his desire to eliminate Tarzan than Rom, but its pointed social message needed to be developed far more beyond a few stray flashbacks.
Alexander Skarsgard was born to play Tarzan and the marketing campaign has done little more than say "Yes, ladies, he's shirtless!" Skarsgard pulls off the character's physicality, and I ain't just talking about the abs, swinging through the vines with the greatest of ease. How much of the character's failure falls on Skarsgard's acting is unclear because he has done good work before. There's a heavy reliance on past incarnations with Tarzan as there is with many of the characters assembled. For a man touted as "wild," he's not exactly dancing naked on tables. Skarsgard probably has about 20 minutes of dialogue in the entire feature, and while it could have been to show his lack of social graces and animal nature eight years later, the minute Skarsgard opens his mouth - sometimes donning a British accent, sometimes Southern or none at all - the answer is apparent.
Like the Magic Mike of 2016, watch how events build towards Skarsgard taking his shirt off. There's more suspense in a shirt removal than in the character's dire circumstances. You'll be asking why "Pour Some Sugar on Me" wasn't included in the soundtrack (and this is after Jane and Tarzan's "meet cute" which plays like the beginnings of a bad porn or fanfiction). The film revels in giving us the man's rippling abs...although this could have been used to brainwash the audience into avoiding how plotless things are. Once the shirt is gone it's gone for the rest of the movie, leading to a laughable coda where, after a year, he's wearing the same pair of pants and little else.
The lovely Margot Robbie as Jane plays opposite Skarsgard. She's "gifted" the Keira Knightley Pirates of the Caribbean role of galvanizing force to get Tarzan from A to B. Despite a great set-up with Skarsgard and some cute ribbing between the two, they are separated for nearly the rest of the movie. Her plot sees her reenacting Knightley's boat dinner opposite Geoffrey Rush, albeit with Waltz who leches after her without veering into threatening territory. Despite Jane's declaration that she "isn't a damsel," her dialogue runs exclusively toward talking about "my husband;" so while she's not wailing for him, she doesn't exactly assert much of a life outside of him.
I'd watch Skarsgard and Robbie in another Tarzan feature, but the plot would need some serious work. Yes, the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan's weren't Citizen Kane, but they still yielded entertainment. The Legend of Tarzan forsakes entertainment for Michael Bay slow-motion and other tricks of the epic trade without substantiating why the character has survived nearly 105 years. Things move so rapidly you won't be bored, but the absence of discernible stakes leave this unmemorable come the year's end. It's easy seeing where the estimated budget of $180 million went, but it's doubtful it'll make any of it back.