'The Legend of Tarzan' Is Flashy but Needs to Be Better

What to expect from this summer blockbuster.

July 01, 2016, 10:20 AM

— -- Rated - PG-13

Starring Margot Robbie and Alexander Skarsgård

Two out of five stars.

Look, Warner Brothers has given us a gift! It’s called The "Legend of Tarzan," and it’s got all sorts of CGI, handsome, buff shirtless men, a stunning Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson being Samuel L. Jackson-y, and Christoph Waltz as the bad guy, being all Christoph Waltz-y. And most importantly, it’s got Tarzan!

Um, yeah. About all that.

This movie lost me after the first five minutes and didn’t try very hard to win me back. At least the opening scene employs some stunning cinematography. This is where we met Waltz’s Leon Rom, King Leopold of Belgium’s emissary to the Congo. He’s searching for Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), a tribal leader who controls vast amounts of diamonds. Mbonga agrees to give Rom the diamonds in exchange for Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård). If you stop to think about the manner in which this deal went down, it will ruin the entire movie for you -- much like it ruined it for me.

Fortunately, we’re not subjected for too long to Tarzan’s backstory. We meet him as John Clayton, national hero and celebrity once known as Tarzan. King Leopold, who’s driven his country into a debt crisis over its investment in the Congo, invites Clayton to go there. When Clayton declines, Civil War hero George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) convinces John it’s his moral obligation to accept. He suspects Leopold is using slaves to develop the Congo, many of whom could be Clayton’s friends. In case you don’t get it, the invitation is a trap.

PHOTO: Margot Robbie and Alexander Skarsgard in a scene from "Tarzan."
Margot Robbie and Alexander Skarsgard in a scene from "Tarzan."
Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros.

So John packs up and returns home to Africa, with Jane (Margot Robbie) in tow. Brilliant thus far in her short career, Robbie takes a misstep here, but it’s not her fault. Her Jane sounds and feels likes she’s an actress from 2016 playing a woman in the 1880s. Having seen what Robbie’s capable of, we’re going to blame director David Yates for this one.

Like Robbie, Yates has certainly done great work, particularly with the four "Harry Potter" movies he directed. But here, he either gave his actors bad direction, or not enough. Given that Waltz and Jackson are pretty much exactly as they are in other films, I think he didn’t give them enough.

Five years ago, the CGI of apes and other animals would’ve been a bit more impressive, but here it’s dwarfed by the natural beauty captured by cinematographer Henry Graham, who does great work when computer generated effects and overzealous color-grading aren’t sullying his beautifully composed shots.

As Tarzan, Skarsgård does well with what he’s given but, on a few occasions, I found myself laughing when he seemed to strike Derek Zoolander’s Blue Steel pose. Did Yates tell him to do that? I don’t know.

What I do know is "The Legend of Tarzan" needs to be a much better movie, considering there was virtually no one asking to see another film about a character that, popular as he once was, hasn’t been part of our cultural conversation for decades.

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