by ETHAN PETERSON
The Legend of Tarzan
dir. David Yates
There is a scene early on in The Legend of Tarzan that explains the problem of the entire movie quite succintly. Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) is cresting an African hill, walking on legs so thin he looks like the titular character of Where’s Waldo, when he sees a few lions. He approaches them cautiously and then begins to nuzzle them with his head. “He’s known them since they were cubs,” opines Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). Instead of playing with them the way that children do, roughly, Tarzan only expresses his kindness as affection. That is not the rule of the jungle.
The best part of the Tarzan story is when he finally gets to England and can’t adapt to their society. Naturally in The Legend of Tarzan, the man is a cultured gentleman named Lord Greystroke. (I honestly thought this was maybe the movie hinting at being an origin story for Deathstroke, but no such luck.) Ommitted the most amusing part of the tale leaves us with Tarzan heading back into the jungle, where he finds himself increasingly at home.
George Washington Williams won a contest for the most aggravatingly racist name. He is portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson as a man who wants Tarzan to witness how the Belgian colonialists are enslaving the Congolese. It seems unclear why he can’t just witness this himself, or why Tarzan has to be a part of the whole situation, and this is never really clarified.
Once they get out into the jungle, Margot Robbie invokes a laughable exposition about how Tarzan loved all the other apes and they loved him. In the middle of the night, she wanders off and is abducted by Leon (Christoph Waltz), but not before she can experience a lengthy memory about how she met Tarzan. To be completely kind to Margot Robbie, she is not really a fit for this role whatsoever.
To be completely unkind to Margot Robbie, her performance is a hot disaster/dumpster fire. Her constant vamping and chattering is unnerving, and she has none of the physical characteristics that would draw such a manbeast. The weird accent she has defaulted to renders things considerably worse. It makes no sense for them to even be a couple, since the real core of the Jane/Tarzan relationship is how they survived together, not their jungle meet-cute.
Jane and Tarzan are apart for all but a few scenes in The Legend of Tarzan, which turns the problem of Skarsgård and Robbie looking more like brother and sister than husband and wife into a minor point. Skarsgård’s strength as a performer is in projecting a lot without saying a little. This should suit the character here, but instead we only wonder why there is so much talking they should have called this Glengarry Glen Tarzan. I’ll show myself out.
Watching this expensive critical and commercial bomb of a motion picture, it just made me want to see the real Tarzan story, done from the beginning. There is so much that could be included that would astonish, amaze and disgust modern audiences: cannibalism, interspecies love, interspecies friendship, unprotected sex. It is so disappointing to see another white savior story come from this, when the real tale of Tarzan has never even received a tenth of the attention it deserves.
Director David Yates’ Harry Potter films were nothing but a mistake, never capturing the wonder of that magical world, and it is surprising that he would even be interested in his material. Tonally, the direction is a mess. Music is very important in Tarzan, with all the sweeping vistas and tense scenes in the dark. Yates plays mostly total silence or lengthy voiceovers over these moments instead. Like many directors, he has fallen in love with Christoph Waltz’ tiresome, mealy monologues, and it is not even very satisfying to watch the villain’s end.
After Robbie’s abduction, Tarzan and George Washington bicker with each other a bit, leading to Samuel L. Jackson screaming, “Take your mitts off me!” The lengthy parts of The Legend of Tarzan where we see Tarzan interacting with human beings come across as atypically dull — he understands them way better than a man raised by apes should. But when Tarzan fully embraces his old life and displays his sizable penis, we see what remains so attractive about the man so wild he cannot call himself one.
Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.