Blockbuster budget, talented cast, yet no swing in ‘The Legend of Tarzan’

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“The Legend of Tarzan” is one of the most misguided blockbuster films released by a major studio this year and, quite frankly, in recent memory. Despite a noteworthy cast including Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz, a talented director in David Yates (the last three excellent “Harry Potter” films along with the upcoming “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and $180 million to buy anything the crew and cast needed to assure this film’s success, “Tarzan” fails on almost every level.

To start with the positive (yes, a singular positive), the film tries to implement a message of how African colonization in the 1800s played an integral role in destroying the people, the animals and the natural beauty of the continent. In increasingly weary times of continued violence, hate and oppression toward Black people abroad and in the United States, the decision to make a big budget franchise film that looks at the systemic injustice that helped created the divides within geopolitics is an intriguing one.

Too bad the film never succeeds at portraying that message. Instead of truly focusing on the enslavement and genocide practiced toward African people, the film, in typical white male-dominated Hollywood style, produces a nonsensical plot that only seems to care about the white people at the boringly unromantic center. Black lives don’t really matter in “Tarzan,” unless that black life is being saved by Tarzan.

Brief introductory titles clue the audience in on the actual history behind Belgium’s King Leopold. In short, his plan is to extract all the diamonds and resources from the Congo basin and enslave all Congolese people in the process. The film then cuts to an illogical opening scene, one that attempts to set the story off with a bang. But it’s a whimper.

As the Belgian king’s right hand man, Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, doing the best he can) walks through the jungle with his army to find precious diamonds in the hopes of sustaining the Belgian government’s overspending. It is here that he’s met by an army of tribal warriors who wipe out the entire army except Captain Rom, even though they clearly could have (and probably should have). But they didn’t.

Why? Who knows.

The leader of the tribe then asks Rom to bring him Tarzan, who just so happens to be an old rival of the leader’s, in exchange for all of the diamonds Rom asks for. And from this point on, the audience is repeatedly introduced to disparate elements that on their own would make no sense. But because this is a summer film, the audience is supposed to just sit back, eat their popcorn and not think about anything. At all.  

For example, take the American character George Washington Williams (Jackson), who encourages Lord John Clayton III of Greystoke, aka Tarzan (Skarsgard) to go back to Africa to become a diplomat for the country to prove the grotesque, racist intentions of King Leopold and Captain Rom. But why does this character just so happen to be in Britain with Tarzan? There’s literally no point other than to try to find a slightly less convoluted reason there is a popular American actor in a film that has nothing to do with America.

Also, why Tarzan decides that he should bring his wife, Jane (Robbie), to a country that he knows can become war-torn at any moment flows well with the preposterousness of it all.

The film panders as if we’re only here for summer blockbuster explosions and are thus incapable of spotting all of the logical fallacies “Tarzan” continually throws out. Or that’s what the producers seem to be banking on.

Sure, it works for some films, but that’s only if the action is rousing or the emotion seems heartfelt and earned. And “Tarzan” has neither.

The root of the failure of “Tarzan” starts with its fundamental production choices. Instead of shooting in the Democratic Republic of Congo — on location with the beautiful vistas in the country — and contributing to the economy of the country, almost everything is so obviously shot on a soundstage with green screen that the film ends up distractingly artificial. In fact, the visual effects are murky and look laughably unfinished on more than one occasion. This hinders the CGI-filled-world building within the sloggy two hour runtime.

The same can be said for Alexander Skarsgard and his abs. While this man is truly beautiful and put a lot of effort into his fitness, director Yates decides to use solely CGI in action sequences. Instead of using Skarsgard or a stunt double that could have showed off Tarzan’s athletic prowess, his performance comes off as anemic because of his inability to actually perform.

Then the editing and cinematography aren’t bad, necessarily, because everyone attached is competent at their jobs. Nonetheless, the film seems to be hastily and choppily put together.

When the action does occur, it’s impossible at times to know what’s taking place. Clearly, we know Tarzan is fighting someone, but the cinematography and editing refuse to let us know who. Not every fight scene needs to be in close ups and shot with cheesy, B-movie-worthy slow motion, but this is lost on Yates and his team.

As for the story, while not every film has to be an origin film — as we sure do have a lot of those these days — the utter lack of worthwhile development of Tarzan and Jane leaves the film devoid of an emotional center that could have made “Tarzan” at least passable. When we get flashbacks to how the two met, they’re superfluous and are out of place in the story. They don’t illuminate the love between the two or, for that matter, illustrate anything worthwhile to the story.

“The Legend of Tarzan” might not represent the money hungry failures of non-risk-taking studio execs, as there is noticeable talent and intentions behind and in front of the film. But it also represents what happens when films don’t put effort into creating a solid screenplay before heading into production.

And with that, the story was as unfinished as the visual effects, creating a mess of a film that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Or, in a just world, justly not remembered at all.

Levi Hill covers film. Contact him at [email protected].