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Movie Review: #TheLegendOfTarzan

Led by an all-star cast, The Legend of Tarzan doesn't bore, but doesn't move us either.

Review by Matt Cummings
If the 2016 box office has proven anything, it's that American audiences are becoming more choosy in what they watch. We've seen that message quickly emerge as one sub-par film after another has fallen to poor turnout and negative reactions by critics. And while The Legend of Tarzan hopes to reverse that trend - and it's better than most of what we've seen this season - it still rings a bit hollow. A retelling of the classic novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, we are introduced to the British gentlemen Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard), who struggles to maintain his sense of self in 19th Century England, all while events unfold in his native land that will draw him back to Africa. Central to this is the politics of colonization, with the Belgium king Leopold staking his claim over the continent. But he'll need help, and therefore enlists the nasty Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to broker a deal with the local tribes. The terms are simple: lure Tarzan back to Africa so that a tribal chief (Djimon Hounsou) can carry out his lifelong grudge against him, and receive a huge gift of diamonds to help finance Leopold's mercenary army. But Tarzan isn't about to comply, even at the behest of the American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who wants to know Leopold's real plan. Eventually drawn home, Tarzan and his wife Jane (Margo Robbie) embark on a journey of adventure, unaware of Rom's plans but knowing that their true home might lie in the jungles far away from the brick/mortar structures of 'civilized' England.
The Legend of Tarzan starts off quite well, with an opening sequence designed to show both the struggle of 'civilized' man vs tribal Africans and how Tarzan fits into this 19th Century universe. We're brought up to speed on Tarzan and Jane's origins , as well as the new world order that saw Africa divvied up between the nations of Europe. But it quickly descends into a lecture on British society, politics, and economics, while our stars don era costumes without really knowing how to act in them. That's probably a blame to assign to Director David Yates, who's best known for helming the last four (and probably the best) Harry Potter films. Fortunately, after that set up concludes and the real story begins - that of Tarzan returning home to battle a tribal chief and the British Rom - the film finds its feet, and it seems like Yates finally figures out what his film will be. This will be a struggle of people and their ideals, led by the powerful Tarzan and his band of merry men. It's what made the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure so tantalizing when it was first published; and while it's a message I eventually got behind, I would have preferred to have buyed-in earlier. I wouldn't say that Skarsgard is the wrong person to play Tarzan, as he certainly fills the role with his ripped physique, but he doesn't exactly imbue the classic character with anything new. For most of that first act, Skarsgard plods and meanders on screen, a lifeless and (honestly) hard to understand Brit who wishes he was far away from Greystoke. And even when he arrives to battle Rom, Skarsgard doesn't deliver a passionate performance. Jackson too serves up a by-the-numbers portrayal that's really no different than his defining work in Pulp Fiction. And yet several of his one-liners and inability to keep up with Tarzan's nearly film-length running does break up the serious tone of The Legend of Tarzan. Waltz also suffers from a bit of typecasting, as the 19th Century Blofeld from SPECTRE, although we do eventually learn why he desires power so badly. It's a near last-gasp effort to legitimize his character, but it's also an example of what two minutes in a script can give you, provided you're willing to take that gamble.
The Legend of Tarzan doesn't feature a lot of these gambles, as Yates and company produce a fairly standard jungle film, perhaps in the hopes of turning it into a franchise. The one performance that makes the strongest case for a possible continuation is Robbie's Jane. She's clearly the most intelligent, progressive, and well-spoken of the lot, and her rugged independence just shows how quickly Hollywood has grown in the portrayal of women. Jane needs to be rescued, not because she can't fend for herself, but because she's Tarzan's wife. Had the roles been reversed, I think Jane would have succeeded because of the way Robbie's imbues her with a sense of authenticity. That's a distinction no other Tarzan movie - not even the animated one - has been able to achieve, and it's the one thing which saves The Legend of Tarzan from becoming boring and even tedious. The CGI here is pretty good, with motion-captured animals dominating most of the story, in many ways outdoing the performances of our leads. This seems to be something Yates gets from the beginning, as that opening sequence effectively shows the power of both the African tribes and the animals which try to exist alongside them. The Legend of Tarzan suffers when Tarzan himself swings from those vines, as Yates The Legend of Tarzan doesn't spend enough time getting us excited about his alternate means of transport. The figures either look completely CGI-ed or fail to inspire that sense of action and exploration that should make The Legend of Tarzan a grander adventure. But that's not to say things don't become epic, and the film does eventually win us over with its inspired message about the wilderness and our absolute necessity in preserving it. That's perhaps its greatest strength and the one thing that separates it from a movie season of uninspired, predictable tripe.
After a strong opening and then a weak first act, The Legend of Tarzan finally morphs into an enjoyable summer movie. Robbie is perhaps the most inspired of the cast, while Skarsgard and Jackson play out their roles without ever defining them for this generation. No one will walk out of this saying, "That is the Tarzan/Rom/Williams I've been waiting for!" which I suppose is a message one could say about most of this year's summer movie season. In a time when expectations are at an all-time high and the stock seemingly at an ebb, it will be interesting to see if audiences can support two jungle-based stories in the same year. The Legend of Tarzan is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue and has a runtime of 110 minutes. Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.


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