David Yates’ listless The Legend of Tarzan has the look, but not the spunk of a great pulp novel the likes of which Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of the character one hundred years ago, might have written. Biting off well more than it can possibly chew, the faux-artisanal nature of the design suggests a more thoughtful, or fun, production than this ultimately pretentious slog can handle. Thickly breaded in a historical revisionism that the film absolutely cannot withstand or rein in at all, the screenplay by Adam Cozard and Craig Brewer (Brewer’s previous films have embraced a pulpy flavor totally lacking in this film) is a misfire of egotistical proportions.
Afraid to accentuate its primal impulse for fun and always gesturing toward racial progress it has little interest in backing up, The Legend of Tarzan’s one effective script suggestion is thankfully to disperse with the typical blockbuster drive to fashion an origin story for a character whose origin is watery and leaden to say the least. Unfortunately, from that point, The Legend of Tarzan submerges itself in a mortifyingly over-baked, talkative trudge through colonial African politics that completely back-peddles against the goodwill already earned with the film beginning where the adventure ought to. Now, a legitimate critique of Belgian slavery in the Congo is a welcome historical treatise. But in The Legend of Tarzan, a cartoon pretending it is a granular dissertation, the ever-mushrooming self-seriousness is a stultifying spillover into bamboozled silliness once the screenplay reveals (surprise!) it doesn’t have a clue what to do with all these political machinations other than to dole them out in a nullifying “this happens, then this happens, then this happens” fiasco.
Almost shockingly disinterested in the stalagmites of blockbuster entertainment always peeking up from the floor of the film threatening to invade its sober politics, the film ultimately treats its essence as goofy summer blockbuster as a crucible of hot coals to avoid rather than a wellspring of potential to embrace. The vastly over-stuffed plot affords not one ounce of space for the film to breathe, and the turgid hollowness of its commentary on race lacks any visual or emotional energy; it simply acknowledges that slavery was wrong and that slavery happened in the Congo, and then moves on its merry way to another slurry of arbitrary plot points.
Within, a few characters manage to grasp air here and there, even wooden hunk Alexander Skarsgard as the meaty beefcake of a hero whose leaden, quasi-robotic line delivery hints at the character’s discomfited place in the world and his lack of a natural language. Better is a prickly Samuel Jackson as Tarzan’s sidekick George Washington Williams, sent to the Congo as an envoy of the US to investigate whether the Belgian king is enslaving the territory’s people. Best is Christoph Waltz as the platonic ideal of a smarmy, snidely aristocrat for whom camp and menace are two sides of the same coin. Djimon Hounsou works wonders in the solitary scene where he is allowed to break free from the iron maiden of his role as a ghostly, oppressive slave-driving African warlord, the sort of “oh, seriously?” stereotype that befuddles in a mainstream blockbuster in 2016 with its open-faced racism (blockbusters prefer their more subcutaneous racism, after all). At least he fares better than Margot Robbie as an anachronistically empowered female who labors on and on about the terror of slavery in the film, only for the camera to train itself on her pretty white face at the expense of the slaves themselves, who are reduced to currency for the film’s white characters to negotiate their virility and morality with. Combined with the genuinely passive nature of the black figures who aren’t actually villains, The Legend of Tarzan is among the more racist anti-racism movies of the year (and you’d be surprised, or you wouldn’t, at how many such films there are every year).
Superficially, Henry Braham’s luscious haze of gloomy cinematography suggests an overcast swamp of terror and pulpy adventure the film is ultimately unable to match and, honestly, primarily disinterested in. The jungle itself a steamy swamp of existential murk and expressionistic glee, but the film around it is a misfire on all counts. Even the direction by David Yates is skeptical, as if the man was dipping his toes in the action/fantasy cinema ring for the first time rather than returning to the fold after a five year sabbatical from filmmaking after shepherding the last four Harry Potter films to the big screen.
Occasionally, Yates stumbles upon the terrible grandeur of his final entries in that franchise, but atop the primordial jungle that he and his team have concocted, he piles on a layer of bizarre stylistic choices that not only fail to enliven the production but actually threaten nullifying its minimal effect to begin with. Gifted with an obvious narrative reason to showcase a camera that swivels, swerves, and gracefully, buoyantly glides through physical space, he barely ever makes good on the one quantifiable reason to create a film with a protagonist who can swing on vines in the first place. Elsewhere, he exhibits a remarkably adolescent fetish for circular camera angles that one might expect out of Michael Bay or an unknown hack copying his aesthetic.
The misguided directorial flourishes enlarge the film’s grandeur without marrying it to pulpy punch. Combined with the lumbering, cumbersome screenplay indulging its high-school realpolitik fixation, not one scene in The Legend of Tarzan rattles, hums, or genuinely sings. Instead, the film’s look that should have been a cobblestone staircase to genuine pulpy pleasure is a 180 million dollar effigy to the memory a time when trim, peppy pulp and vigorous, unadorned thrills could exist without the particular species of spillover “serious film” toxicity only ever caused when a film’s ego surpasses its skill.