Let me spare you the agony of reading this whole review if you’re not interested in The Legend of Tarzan beyond Alexander Skarsgård’s body (I’m not judging. He’s a gorgeous Swedish viking sex god). He doesn’t take his shirt off until midway through the second act. In a movie that’s only 109 minutes long, that’s waaaaay too long to get to the meat, if you will. And the sex scene where Margot Robbie supposedly punched him for animalistic passion? Nicholas Sparks level of vanilla. If you were hoping for dirty panting jungle sex between two really, really beautiful people, you won’t get it.
Now that that’s out of the way…The Legend of Tarzan isn’t an origin story. I’m torn on my feelings about this. The good news is it’s not like Spider-Man, where they retell the same story you’ve heard and seen a million times whenever they reboot. It does keep certain moments from the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories alive in flashbacks that show Tarzan (Skarsgård) being raised by gorillas, the dynamics among the herd, and his meet-cute with Jane (Robbie). These are evenly placed throughout the film and never feel too overwhelming in terms of Tarzan’s “legendary” backstory.
But the downside is it’s hard to get the full extent of Tarzan’s legend when it’s back in the past. The present story is that John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke (Tarzan’s real name), is invited to the Congo Free State (modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo) by Belgium’s king, who owns the territory and has terrible mercenary, ivory trade, and slavery-related plans for it. Tarzan, along with Jane and American gunslinger George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), head to Africa to stop this, but they run into trouble with Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), the man in charge of Belgium’s plans, and Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), an old enemy of Tarzan’s.
In other words, it’s one of those movies that pretends like it’s going to address the European imperialism in Africa and give you vine-swinging, gorilla-fighting action all in one. But it ends up barely doing either, and it manages to be both a white savior narrative and white man conquers the black world narrative (which, yes, are issues rooted in Burroughs’ stories). I’d be impressed at how tone deaf it is if it weren’t for the fact that the movie is so forgettable.
The forgettable part to me is what’s shocking because The Legend of Tarzan is visually spectacular with great cinematography and solid CGI animal work, and it has a HUGE cast. Alexander Skarsgård is probably the least well-known of the cast. But Margot Robbie is the current film it-girl. Samuel L. Jackson is, well, Samuel L. Jackson. Djimon Hounsou is one of those actors whose name you won’t know but face you will recognize. And Christoph Waltz practically eats Villain Flakes for breakfast, so of course he’s here playing the mustache-twirling bad guy (who actually has a mustache).
So why are they all so underwhelming? The movie makes a point of having Jane shut down the “Scream for me…like a damsel” thing. And while she does outsmart and sass Rom a few times, she literally has nothing else to do but wait for Tarzan to find her (So, yes, she’s a damsel). And Waltz chews scenery, never becoming a true threat to Tarzan beyond kidnapping Jane, because even he’s tired of playing villains. Hounsou is supposedly Tarzan’s rival, but that plot point gets dropped in favor of rushing to a climax with a wildebeest stampede (Okay, it was kind of worth it). Meanwhile, Jackson is the “Aw, hell no” sidekick, and I’m pretty sure they just let him ad lib his lines because they’re very on-brand for him but not the movie.
There are also some weird, distracting elements in this film. Like Skarsgård’s attempt at a British accent (Remember, he’s Swedish but lives in America). And then there’s the anachronism issues. At one point, Jane exclaims “Oh my god!” when she sees an old friend. Is Jane a teen girl from California now? Also, both Robbie and Waltz are dressed in exploration fashions common in the 1920-30s, not the 1880s (the Victorian era). And don’t even get me started on Samuel L. Jackson’s totally out-of-period jokes and manner of speaking. This wouldn’t bug me normally, but because the movie went out of its way to tell us exactly what year/era this is, it’s easier to notice.
Overall, what I’m saying is The Legend of Tarzan is one of those “It’s a good thing you’re pretty” movies. Because there’s nothing behind the good looks. Or the abs. Can’t forget the abs. It’s just a whole pretty mess of wannabe legend. Like the Ryan Lochte of movies.
The Legend of Tarzan: C
Listen to my review of The Legend of Tarzan on “Pat & JT in the Morning”here (at 40:51).