The Legend of Tarzan

Tarzan

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The only truly exciting thing in Peter Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan is the sight of Alexander Skarsgard showing off his buff physique. Regardless of the viewer’s orientation, the impossibly good looking star’s clothing-challenged torso goes a long way in this stolidly square and uninvolving movie. But not quite far enough.  The Legend of Tarzan is, in spirit, a throwback to another age, but it never truly works, lacking in romance and real adventure.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ century old story hasn’t changed much—and by now, after scores of movie adaptations, you certainly know it—but it is framed here in peculiar flashbacks and forwards. Instead of beginning in the jungle, the new version opens years later where we meet Victorian-era aristocrat John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke (Skarsgard), comfortably ensconced in British society. Only through a handful of flashbacks do we learn Clayton’s story of shipwreck in the wilds of the Congo, parents’ demise and subsequent adolescence amongst apes.

British Clayton—nee Tarzan—is married to American Jane (Margot Robbie) and enjoys a civilized existence. But while you can take the boy out of the jungle, you can’t take the jungle out of the boy, and at the request of the British prime minister (Jim Broadbent), he returns to the Congo to assist a mission for Belgium’s King Leopold III (Christoph Waltz).

In typically good form, Samuel L. Jackson turns up as American diplomat George Washington Williams, giving this movie a shot in the arm, who has a hunch that the Belgian king might be up to no good with a Congolese tribe led by the great Djimon Honsou. The plot?  To retrieve a cache of diamonds and revive the declining Belgian economy in exchange for the jungle man responsible for the death of the tribal leaders’ son.

Tarzan eventually gets smart to the ruse, separating from Jane, the king and his party, rejoining his animal family in the jungle, swinging across vines and eventually staging a climactic revolt. And that’s about it.

Skarsgard, the terrific actor from HBO’s True Blood who has impressed in pictures like Disconnect and What Maisie Knew, is the only thing that truly works here, and with the studio shooting and computerized flora and fauna, more often than not I was left wondering what was real and what wasn’t, and was never convinced by the jungle sets, location or animals.

For a movie so heavily set in the jungle, the animals should really look convincing, and never in this picture did I feel the CGI looked or felt real. Frankly, it is getting tiresome to see computerized movie apes with ultra-sensitive and expressive “human” faces the result of actors delivering motion capture performances; it rings false to anyone who has ever studied zoo primates offering blunter, more direct communication.

Robbie, her beauty blunted as a redhead, is plucky but not memorable. The young star, so good in The Wolf of Wall Street, needs strong material and an actors’ director; here she has neither.

Not recommended.

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