You want to hear a rip-roaring Tarzan yell? Check out the ‘30s and ‘40s MGM ape-man movie franchise starring Olympic swimming superstar Johnny Weissmuller. You want to the thrill and spectacle of Tarzan going fang-and-claw against lions and tigers and crocodiles? Try the old TV series starring Ron Ely as the vine-swinging, jungle-raised hero. You want nude swims featuring a beautiful young Jane? You want fun, period? Then move along. Nothing to see here.
The Legend of Tarzan is what happens when a reported $180 million gets spent trying to modernize, CGI-ize and PC-ize (and in certain theaters, 3D and IMAX-ize) the much imitated Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure book series first published in 1914. Of course, racial, sexual, gender and geopolitical politics and even animal rights have changed drastically since even the ‘60s TV series, the could-have-been-definitive 1984 Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes featuring Christopher Lambert and the more recent 1999 Disney animated movie and Broadway musical, let alone the earliest Silent Era versions. We completely understand that if the Tarzan myth is to muscle its way into the 21st century, things had to be rejiggered. But if making Tarzan current means draining the life,high adventure and animal instincts out of him, count us out.
Screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer concocted the plotline, which opens long past Tarzan’s days as an orphaned British foundling raised in Africa by apes. Our hero has assumed his rightful place in England as John Clayton, 3rd Viscount Greystoke, alongside his loving and lively wife. A member of the House of Lords, he’s called to serve as a parliamentary trade emissary to the Congo where he’s a legend, beloved by the local villagers and a prize to villains out to exploit him. He resists at first, commenting, “I’ve already seen Africa. It’s hot.” That’s the one witty line of the whole movie. Anyway, our hero relents and the dull adventures, predictable double-crosses and clockwork escapes pile up.
It’s only fitting that this sleek, soulless new version stars a spectacular-looking duo, Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie. He Tarzan; she, of course, Jane. They’re so impossibly gorgeous, they look pre-CGI’d. Skarsgard is insanely fit and chiseled, runs like a cheetah, and even if the script does its damnedest to dampen the character’s wild side for way too long, he’s a tad bland through the whole thing—something he wasn’t on True Blood. Robbie, highly contemporary in every way, is a force to be reckoned with, but she’s stuck playing a politically correct construct, not a character. We don’t a feel a thing for either of them.
Surrounding them are hordes of sub-sub-sub Jungle Book CGI beasts, always conveniently shot in rain and/or mist. Djimon Hounsou plays a formidably convincing and cool tribal chief; Jim Broadbent, plastered with a laughably fake beard, takes a brief bookending turn as a skeevy Brit industrialist. Samuel L. Jackson turns up doing some enjoyable scenery-chewing as George Washington Williams, a character based on the real-life lawyer-minister-politician-journalist whose reports of abuses of indigenous inhabitants of the Congo Free State sparked public outrage. There’s also Christoph Waltz as a natty, nefarious and cuckoo Belgian scheming to take Tarzan hostage in exchange for piles of precious diamonds. We’ve seen Waltz do this stuff too many times before, but he at least appears to be having a giggle menacing Jane (who isn’t having any of it), doing his damnedest to doom Tarzan (fat chance) and throwing disdain everywhere he looks. We empathize.
Longish, silly and snoozy, the movie is directed by David Yates (who made the final Harry Potter movies) and presents nicely immersive forest vistas, at least one bout of vine-swinging and a beastly chase and stampede that should at least temporarily wake up the inner eight-year-old in many of us. But all the sped-up and slo-mo footage in the world won’t disguise the weird attempt to morph the Lord of the Apes into just another comic book superhero franchise.