I’ve long been a fan of Tarzan, the Ape man. While there hasn’t been a decent (live-action) Tarzan film in about thirty years, there was never a doubt in my mind that Edgar Rice Burroughs’s vine-swinging hero would return to the silver screen in a big way at some point. Sure enough, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a massive, tent-pole, wannabe franchise starter for Warner Bros, big enough that they’ve pumped a reported $180 million into it, and hired HARRY POTTER’s David Yates to direct.
While the early buzz hasn’t been great, this TARZAN update is a completely respectable, politically correct, 21st century incarnation of the hero. While neither as high-brow as Hugh Hudson’s GREYSTROKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN or as silly as the MGM Johnny Weissmuller programmers from the thirties and forties (which, I’ll admit, I have a huge weakness for), it remains to be seen whether audiences will embrace the loincloth-wearing hero in this period adventure.
In the lead role, Alexander Skarsgard is ideally cast. The fact that the tall, Nordic-looking Skarsgard doesn’t seem particularly British works in the movie’s favor, with it being intentional that the impossibly imposing ape-man stand-out among his 19th century English peers like a fish-out-of-water. Playing the part with a twinkle in his eye as he tries to affect the bearings of an aristocrat early on (to the point that he extends his pinkie while sipping tea), Skarsgard makes the most of his attempt at big screen immortality. Always a big guy, his physical metamorphosis is astonishing, with his peculiarly muscled Tarzan standing-out even in an era when all big male movie stars have a six-pack (he sports more of an eight-pack).
Margot Robbie comes-off just as well as the liberated, modern Jane, with the idea being that she was raised in Africa herself, giving her as much of a tie to the region as her husband. While mostly set a decade after they resettled-in England, Yates frequently flashes back to their original encounters as teenagers, while some movie-magic used to make Skarsgard look young, while Robbie doesn’t need anything at all.
Given how good both of them are, it’s a shame THE LEGEND OF TARZAN only amounts to a moderately good, respectable film, as with a few tweaks it could have been really solid and a serious franchise-starter. For one thing, Christoph Waltz is quickly descending into self parody, with his Belgian baddie being another in a long-line of villains he’s played and just as familiar as his recent, disappointing turn in SPECTRE. Can’t Hollywood find him more interesting parts? I’m also not sure that Samuel L. Jackson’s sidekick was wholly necessary. While always cool, some of his lines can’t help but be cliché, especially when he opens up to Tarzan about dark past as a gun-for-hire.
Despite the huge budget, the CG for Tarzan’s primate friends seems surprisingly primitive, especially compared to the recent PLANET OF THE APES movies or THE JUNGLE BOOK. Yates also doesn’t seem at home directing the harder-edged action scenes, such as when Tarzan fights a train-load of soldiers hand-to-hand. This is a far cry from HARRY POTTER, and perhaps more of a specialist with physical action rather than fantasy would have been better at the helm. The soundtrack also comes up short. A really good score could have really bumped this up a couple of notches. While Rupert Gregson-Williams’s contribution is fine, it’s also very typical for Hans Zimmer’s ‘Remote Control” team, and it sounds like a temp track brought to life rather than possess a real identity of its own. If this had been made twenty years ago, a guy like Jerry Goldsmith could have helped turn this into a really fun film.
In the end, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a serviceable, entertaining update of Burroughs’s hero, and far better than the early buzz suggests. While the commercial prospects seem a tad dire, should the series go on there’s some real potential here for a fun series of adventure-programmers, with Skarsgard and Robbie perfectly cast in their iconic parts. Hopefully they both get to re-use their loincloths.