Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan” is another one of those tales that’s been adapted numerous times for screens big and small, including such takes on the material as the multitude of Johnny Weissmuller films from the 30s and 40s and the Disney film from 1999. Given that it’s been an entire two years since the last big-screen iteration (the very poorly received film with Kellan Lutz in the title role), I suppose someone else felt like they wanted to try to do Burroughs’ classic character justice. This leads us to David Yates’ big budget adaptation, “The Legend of Tarzan,” in which he takes a fairly likeable cast and $180 million and tries to make something new out of a story that’s probably been done as many times as “Dracula” or “Romeo and Juliet.”
This latest version begins in the 1880s. The colonial powers have divided up Africa, with King Leopold of Belgium claiming the Congo. However, he soon goes into great debt trying to explore it, forcing him to send an envoy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), on a desperate mission into the territory. Rom’s men are killed by a native tribe, who know that they are there for the abundance of diamonds, but in order to get them, Rom has to agree to bring the Chief (Djimon Hounsou) the legendary Tarzan.
Meanwhile, back in London, John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard), aka Tarzan, has settled into civilized life with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). We meet him as he is offered an invitation from King Leopold to visit the Congo to see how it has changed. At first he declines to go, but is soon talked into it by an envoy, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), from America, who believes that the King is using the natives as slave labor. Jane also has to talk him into letting her go, but soon they are off to the wild, visiting the house where she grew up. Their trip seems quite pleasant at first as they catch up with the locals, but soon Rom appears with his men, hoping to finish off his deal and secure great power for himself.
From its onset, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly wrong with “The Legend of Tarzan.” It’s a little unusual to have the main characters already living in London, but it makes for an interesting change from having him just be in the jungle the entire time. The film begins to establish its main plot, which may appear a bit generic, but it sounds like it could be a fun little adventure. Indeed, on the surface, it looks like it’s setting itself up to deliver exactly what we would expect from the classic stories.
However, then something happens, or rather I should say, something doesn’t happen. The story has been set up for the most part, but then it’s as though the writers (Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer) couldn’t figure out what comes next, leading them to churn out a screenplay that simply meanders about as they try to determine where to take their uninspired tale. They throw in an action sequence every now and again to make sure the audience is still awake, but it does nothing to hide the fact that they clearly don’t know what they’re doing.
Because of this, the film has an extremely languid pacing that causes the film to drag for most of its 109-minute runtime, filling in the gaps between poorly-made action scenes with unnecessary filler such as flashbacks (Jane tells us that John was raised by apes, so do we really need to flash back several times to see this played out?). Even Christoph Waltz’s forgettable villain is given absolutely nothing to do, that is, when he’s not attacking people with his rosary (seriously, I’m not making that up), which begs the question of why they went to the trouble of getting someone as good as Waltz (two-time Oscar winner) if they weren’t going to bother utilizing his amazing screen presence.
Yates’ film is riddled with all of these problems and more, but one thing’s for sure, this was most definitely the wrong approach to the material. When one thinks of Tarzan, they think of fun, excitement, thrills, and fantastic adventure (even the cheesy 30s films had all of these), not something dull, tedious, and morose like this. If Burroughs himself had been alive to watch it, he probably wouldn’t recognize anything about his creation. Just like the audience, he’d be wondering what had become of the joy his character had brought to viewers, and why anyone would think this was a proper way to treat him.
After seeing Yates’ take, the best thing I can recommend is to go back and rewatch the classic Disney flick. It might not be one of Disney’s most memorable films, but it does a much better job with the character. Or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, hunt down some of the old Weissmuller films and experience how the material was adapted in the old days of cinema. Undoubtedly someone will once again take up the reigns of Tarzan in just a few years and try again to give him the big screen adventure he deserves, and while they may be a little pressed as to how to breathe new life into Burroughs’ work, at the very least they’ll have a great idea of how not to tackle the timeless tale. 1.5/4 stars.
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