A talky and mostly turgid attempt by British director David Yates to build on the epic vision he brought to the final four Harry Potter movies via another beloved literary hero, “The Legend of Tarzan” is sequel, origin story, and racially sensitive revisionist history lesson all in one. What it isn’t is much fun for anyone who’s seen Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ape man in any of his previous incarnations. While name recognition alone should snare a fair number of those who prefer their pulp heroes endowed with superpowers, between this and last year’s “Pan,” evidence suggests Warner Bros. ought to leave the live-action reboots to Disney.
For a film the scale of Yates’ “The Legend of Tarzan,” the visual effects are astonishingly subpar, obliging the creative team to distract us with such impressive topographical sights as the African savannah and Alexander Skarsgård’s abs. The latter selling point doesn’t appear until nearly midway through the movie, until which point Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer’s script is concerned primarily with getting Tarzan back to Africa — a prospect his beloved Jane (a semi-empowered Margot Robbie) far prefers to days spent “hybridizing coconuts and playing ping pong.” While choppy, action-oriented flashbacks retrace the feral child’s formative years in the wild, it seems the one-time vine-swinger has grown up and re-gentrified in rainy old England, where he has traded his loincloth for a dapper pair of pants and assumed his identity as John Clayton III, fifth earl of Greystoke and member of the House of Lords.
Covering his protagonist in scars (a superficial gesture toward realism), Yates has attempted to give us a more psychologically complex Tarzan — which is to say, he serves up a version of the character that shamelessly emulates the “why so serious” tone of Christopher Nolan’s brooding Batman movies. Skarsgård plays Clayton as a pampered rich kid haunted by his parents’ deaths who feels compelled to protect others. The main difference is the fact that everybody knows his secret identity, which makes it rather easy for the film’s villain, Capt. Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, in yet another of his suave sociopath roles, just a few degrees removed from the well-mannered Nazi officer he played in “Inglourious Basterds”) to invent a pretext that will lure Tarzan to the Congo, where Rom plans to deliver him to vengeful tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) in exchange for the sought-after diamonds of Opar.
Inadvertently helping to pull off Rom’s plan is another Tarantino regular, Samuel L. Jackson, who may as well be riffing on his score-settling “The Hateful Eight” character. Jackson plays George Washington Williams, a veteran of the American Civil War (and a real historical figure) who suspects that Belgian king Leopold II may be enslaving — or at least condoning the enslavement of — the natives of his colony in the Congo. Having fought to help end slavery in the United States, Williams has now set out to stanch the practice at its source, enlisting Tarzan (who, frankly, seems more interested in the fate of the gorilla family that raised him) to restore some sense of balance to the region.
Williams makes an intriguing addition to the formula, as does the decision to peg this particular Tarzan adventure to the Congo, which isn’t necessarily the backdrop Burroughs had in mind. (Situating it there does allow the film to make a more impactful commentary on Europe’s controversial relationship with the Dark Continent.) To the extent that white men have exploited Africa for more than two centuries, Tarzan comes to represent the extension — a hero who identifies with the natives and stands up to the corrupt white men who refuse to respect their lives, liberty, or potential claim to their own natural resources.
The film establishes Rom’s villainy early on via a scene of disturbingly cold-blooded genocide, as the Belgian officer gives the go-ahead for his Force Publique soldiers to gun down locals armed only with spears (although, like Tarzan, Yates seems more interested in the fate of the gorilla family later in the film). The historical figure on whom Rom is based was notoriously cruel to African natives — it was he who inspired the character of Col. Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness.” Dressed in white linen and armed with only a deadly rosary made from Madagascar spider silk, Rom gets the fate Hollywood feels he deserves, which includes a homophobic barb from Jane that flies right over the character’s head (“Sounds like you and your priest were really close”).
The role of Tarzan is unique among Western heroes in that he requires virtually no acting ability (as bodybuilder Miles O’Keeffe and Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel both demonstrated). And yet, with each subsequent screen appearance, the bar is raised on how perfect audiences expect the character’s wildly unnatural physique to be. In that respect, Skarsgård makes a fine choice for the role, looking more than ever like someone’s fantasy PhotoShop rendering of father Stellan’s head grafted onto an impossibly shredded torso — which isn’t so far removed from the process the visual effects team used to meld his face onto an all-CG body during scenes when Tarzan swings through the trees at top speed.
To the extent that modern audiences accept the character as a sort of proto-superhero, Tarzan’s “powers” rank way down there with those of Aquaman: He’s super-strong, agile, and can speak to animals, having mastered the mating calls of nearly every African species. Whenever Tarzan shares the screen with animals, however, the critters look appallingly digital — with human actors not even bothering to look in the right direction much of the time (consider the scene when Mbonga’s men are surrounded by gorillas, reacting as if to invisible ghosts). It’s a glaring problem, given all the attention Yates poured into crafting a believable context for what amounts to a glorified B movie. As a brand, Burroughs’ hero has always been schlocky, and no amount of psychological depth or physical perfection can render him otherwise — especially if the filmmakers can’t swing a convincing interaction between Tarzan and his animal allies. That dynamic — along with his full-throated yodel — has always been Tarzan’s trademark, but in this relatively lifeless incarnation, it simply doesn’t register.