"The Legend Of Tarzan" - At Least There Aren't Any Phil Collins Songs

Tarzan Of The Apes novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs died in 1950, but his death was no match for one of the great pop culture juggernauts of the twentieth century. The feral jungle man starred in twenty-six books and more than fifty films (some of them unauthorized), spanning his creator’s life and beyond. Tarzan eventually closed out the millennium by toplining an animated hit for Disney, putting a nice bow on his long-term ubiquity. But that was seventeen years ago, and aside from a poorly received 2013 computer-animated movie, the character has remained absent from the major motion picture scene.

Enter Warner Bros. to opportunistically kickstart a star-studded, would-be franchise helmed by four-time “Harry Potter” director David Yates. With a capable cast and crew and literally a century’s worth of source material to mine from, what could possibly go wrong?

Plenty.

Yates’ film is an undeniably handsome one, stacked with striking vistas and solid special effects. And the cast is terrific – on paper – featuring superstar in-waiting Alexander Skarsgård as the title character and Quentin Tarantino staples Sam Jackson and Christoph Waltz in supporting roles. But the sleepy screenplay, credited to Adam Cozad (“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”) and Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”), is a horrific fit for Yates’ overtly English sensibilities. The outcome is an elegant but incomparably dull action adventure movie that makes Peter Jackson’s sluggish “King Kong” remake look like an EDM festival by comparison.

It’s 1889. The ape man born John Clayton III is, at the behest of the Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent), off to his old Congolese stomping grounds to aid in a land dispute. With his wife Jane Foster (Margot Robbie) and Civil War veteran George Washington Williams (Jackson) in tow, Tarzan’s reluctance to return home is superseded by his allegiance to it and its inhabitants – both human and animal. But the expedition goes bad, ambushed by a murderous Belgian named Leon Rom (Waltz). Rom’s been promised a hefty sum in minerals by a vengeful African chief (Djimon Honsou) in exchange for Tarzan.

This is all a bizarre mix of oversimplification and convolutedness. Worse still, Yates allows it to unfold as tediously as possible. Tarzan pains over the Prime Minister’s proposed trip before inevitably acquiescing to it. Jane rambles on to herself about mating calls. Some half-assed commentary on the African slave trade exhibits no real desire on the part of the filmmakers to address the issue or the racism of Burroughs’ original texts. And Tarzan’s backstory is predictably weaved in via flashbacks.

There are moments of humor and genuinely thrilling action throughout, but they’re fleeting and only underscore the picture’s lack of intrigue. The lion’s share of the story is about Tarzan trying to rescue Jane, completely uninterested in characterization and thematic depth. Credit to Jackson, who does everything he can to bring levity to the proceedings, but he’s mostly acting against a wooden plank: Skarsgård.

Skarsgård makes the interesting choice of playing Tarzan like one of the trees he grew up in, removing humanity from the equation entirely. Gone is the push-pull between civilization and nature, in its place a sad sack raised by apes who spends a lot of time looking into the middle distance. Robbie doesn’t fare much better. She’s given a handful of comedic moments that are not her forte, ultimately being pushed into damsel in distress duty. And Waltz is the most boring he’s ever been, providing even more evidence that Quentin Tarantino is a miracle worker.

The movie’s biggest failures ultimately belong to the screenwriters – their work is stupefyingly unimaginative – but Yates compounds their failures with his total disregard for energy and personality. His actors might as well be wearing shock collars, seemingly discouraged as they are from doing anything interesting. Accordingly, the required Tarzan flourishes – like his famous call – are startlingly out of place, as if imported from the fun 2016 Tarzan movie that Warner Bros. decided not to make.

“The Legend Of Tarzan” is technically competent, even bordering on impressive at times. But its beating heart flatlines early and never comes back. Moviegoers are left with a shoulder shrug of a movie that suggests nobody involved knew exactly what they were making or why they were making it. It certainly looks like a Tarzan movie. If only someone had thought to write one.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 1, 2016
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: David Yates
Screenwriter: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue)