It’s mind-blowing how bland, and bad, “The Legend of Tarzan” is.
You might argue that veteran “Harry Potter” director David Yates is a perfect pick to tell the story of a man with incredible and unusual powers in a wild world of action and adventure. You might pound your fist, declaring a movie that boasts master of sultry smolder Alexander Skarsgård, eccentric Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, the dynamic and gorgeous Margot Robbie, and legendary badass Samuel L. Jackson cannot possibly be a boring waste of time. There is so much collective charisma that this movie should be a joy, no matter how inane the plot! And yet I tell you: “The Legend of Tarzan” is by far the worst release of this dismal summer movie season.
The film’s first sin is its half-assed approach to setting up its back-and-forth plot. Determined to give audiences more than the familiar story of an English boy raised by gorillas, and destined to fall for the brave Jane, “The Legend of Tarzan” lazily laces this origin tale within a white savior narrative that is regressive and offensive.
After multiple opening title cards blather on about the Belgian colonization of the Congo, Tarzan is introduced not as a vine-swinging king of the jungle, but as a stoic nobleman, who has been invited back to his childhood swinging grounds to see all the “good works” of the Belgian king. But trigger-happy American diplomat George Washington Williams (Jackson) warns Tarzan (who prefers to be called “John”) that the never-seen monarch is building his new empire on the backs of enslaved Congolese natives. So, Tarzan, “Africa’s favorite son,” must return to the Congo to set free an entire nation of black people.
It’s a plotline in such poor taste that it’s actually shocking to see Jackson of “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” call the blonde-haired, white-skinned English lord “Africa’s favorite son” with a straight face. But then his desperate diplomat, who fought in the Civil War and wants no man on Earth to face enslavement again, says something disturbing and revealing: “I need someone to tell the world that they’ll believe.”
Basically, even though Williams is a veteran and a diplomat, and is seeking concrete proof of the king’s slavery operation, he knows 1889 society will not listen to a black man. He needs a white ally to get white people to take notice. This is a tactic we’re seeing again and again in Hollywood, a story of black experience is filtered through a white protagonist. The recent Matthew McConaughey vehicle “Free State of Jones” was roundly criticized for centering a tale of Civil War oppression on white farmers instead of slaves. And outcry hit just this week over an unpcoming Daniel Craig movie about the L.A. riots that will focus not so much on the racial tension and riots themselves but on how a white man felt in that turbulent time. It’s a repulsive storytelling tactic, and not one that saves “The Legend of Tarzan” from being a dull mess.
Strapping Swedish hunk Skarsgård seems perfectly cast to play the buff Tarzan. But the script opts to give him precious few lines, and virtually no sense of humor — a real waste of Skarsgård true talents — allowing him mostly grunting and glowering. Margot Robbie is allotted the occasional smile, but must hack her way through hackneyed quips that make Jane a 19th-century Mean Girl. At Christoph Waltz’s cruel slaver, she spits cutting remarks about the trim of his push broom mustache and cracks a crass joke about child molestation. Fans of the “Suicide Squad” star will have at least one genuine scene of tension and one of action to look forward to, but Robbie’s Jane is primarily a human McGuffin for Tarzan to chase down as he’s ending slavery.
Waltz seems to be on cruise control. There’s the melodic line delivery and the vicious smiles we’ve come to expect from this celebrated character actor, but there’s no fire here. Even Jackson seems bored. And who could blame him? This modern film legend is looped into play a wise-cracking sidekick whose main duty is to ask exposition questions so Tarzan can explain how the jungle works. Then Jackson must ooh and ah as Tarzan performs superhuman acts of strength, dexterity and animal conversation. And oh the animals.
It’s astonishing that in the same year Disney gave us the awe-inspiring live-action “Jungle Book” that Warner Bros. dared to turn in CG this shockingly subpar. “The Jungle Book” delivered CG environments that melded seamlessly with their human hero, and animated animals that looked so photo-real you could practically reach out and stroke their fur. The CG in “The Legend of Tarzan” is so laughably flat that its hero and his native friends are floating as they hustle across broad tree branches. And the threat of rampaging silverback gorillas, stampeding ostriches, feasting lionesses and barrel-rolling crocodiles feels remote when their animation falls so short of photo-real.
Awash in grays and digital rain (perhaps meant to obscure the subpar CG), “The Legend of Tarzan” is an ugly slog of sloppy visual effects, uninspired production design, insipid storytelling, hazy performances and forced emotion. As Tarzan races into the big finish, I was only happy because it was almost over. Well, that is after a barrage of nonsensical superhero-style stunts, poorly edited action and an explosion, because why the hell not.
“The Legend of Tarzan” opens today nationwide.
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