There’s a nice moment early in The Legend of Tarzan in which a child notices John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) has unusually large hands, like a mutant, and when he kneels down he rests his body on his knuckles, like a gorilla. The audience, of course, knows something the kid doesn’t: Clayton, aka Lord Greystoke, was formerly known as Tarzan, the king of the apes, before he left the African habitat where he was raised and moved to London to lead a gentrified life with his beloved Jane (Margot Robbie).
The quick shot of Clayton’s hand is a small and thoughtful detail — the only new facet this huge, cumbersome movie adds to Tarzan lore. The Legend of Tarzan is the 857th movie incarnation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulpy adventure novels, but it’s the first one in which the production notes state “no real animals were used in the making of the film,” as if that were something to brag about.
Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book had no real tigers or snakes either, but the animals in that one talked and occasionally sang. British director David Yates, who brought the Harry Potter series to such a satisfying conclusion (he directed the last four installments), does such an impersonal job with this material that you wonder if he lost a bet. He sent cameras all the way to Gabon to capture authentic background footage, but half of the movie looks like it was shot on the set of The Phantom Menace. Even the sky looks painted and fake.
Once Tarzan finally sheds his city-slicker gear and gives in to his inner savage (almost an hour in), the film starts to feel like a Marvel Comics production. The screenplay, by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, is cut from the superhero-movie template, complete with a maniacal, power-hungry villain (Christoph Waltz, coasting on his Inglourious Basterds schtick) and a comic-relief sidekick (Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams, a Civil War veteran). Margot Robbie’s Jane is much more empowered than the character’s previous incarnations, but in the end she exists basically to be rescued.
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There is also a subplot involving an African tribal chief (Djimon Hounsou) who has an old score to settle with Tarzan. That storyline is the strongest in the film, raising intriguing questions about a world in which only the strong survive. But it gets resolved in such an unsatisfying manner that you assume it was included just to set up a sequel — one that I am pretty certain will never happen now.
The Legend of Tarzan doles out big beats of action at regular intervals to keep you awake, like a drunkard clashing trashcan lids in an alley late at night. But your eyelids grow heavy anyway. When elephants trample across the screen, they feel weightless, like balloons. The gorillas are decent, but Yates pushes credulity too far by having them emote. Skarsgård lets his abs do most of his acting. When Tarzan swings from a tree vine, the effects are so cartoonish he might as well be Spider-Man. And when he belts out his trademark jungle yell, it sounds like a cry for help, as in “Help me get out of this movie.” The feeling is mutual.