Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan
By Ben Gruchow
July 7, 2016

White isn't the best color for leaning up against trees.

The Legend of Tarzan beggars deconstruction. To witness it is to search fruitlessly for a place to begin doing so. The characters, casting, set design, visual effects - all of them enacted on a massive scale, at great cost - constitute a thorough misconception of what a film based on Edgar Rice Borroughs’ early-1900s novels, or any tropical adventure fantasy, could (or should) look and feel like. It's sort of fascinating, really, how the many and varied missteps are baked so completely into each discipline of the movie’s production. There's nothing catastrophically wrong with any element of the production, but there's also nothing really approaching right. It's a film stuck perfectly in neutral.

The movie has less a story than a marketing pitch. John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård),, known better to the people in and outside the film as Tarzan, has a price on his head from a tribal leader in the African Congo he formerly called home; to get the man back in the jungle, the leader takes advantage of an emissary (Christoph Waltz) of a debt-ridden Belgian king: there are precious stones in this section of the Congo, and the king needs these stones in order to begin recovering from the massive expenditures he's made on Belgian infrastructure. Tarzan himself, having accepted England as his home, is none too eager to go; his wife Jane is insistent that she go with him.

All of this sounds complicated enough, until we realize that 90 percent of this storyline is contained within the first five minutes or so of the film—some through expository on-screen text, some through snatches of expository dialogue. What we really have here is the pitch: living legend reconnects with his roots in a way that follows the dual paths of a direct sequel and a reboot, theoretically offering the best of both worlds. To the movie’s credit, it does not take the path of forcing John/Tarzan to become reacquainted with his old home; he arrives in the Congo with full knowledge and capability. This introduces its own set of problems, though, chief among which is: since he has nothing left to develop and we have nothing new to learn about the environment, the entirety of the jungle is left as a tool with which to conceal and reveal mechanical story developments.

This is a functional use of the cinematic environment, but it's possibly the least-interesting one you can come up with. The Legend of Tarzan has the miserable fortune to open less than three months after April’s terrific Jungle Book; imagine if Mowgli had spent most of that film in the human encampment, with only sporadic visits to the jungle beyond, and this is how we are limited here. Tarzan’s Congo is an indistinct and constantly blue-lit environment, partially CG and partially set-bound (and oh, how set-bound those parts are; it's been a long time since I've seen a big-budget action-adventure film look this conspicuously staged). We do not get an organic sense of place; we get the sense that director David Yates overdelegated, and the set designers and visual-effects technicians showed up, did their job, and went home, without being subjected to a comprehensive creative vision.

Yet the Congo environment and set design is the most unilaterally successful aspect of the film, if only because it does at least get the job done. The same cannot be said for the cinematography, which constantly distracts from the action and dialogue it's depicting by way of either utter numbness or surprising ineptitude. The early scene introducing us to Jane (Margot Robbie) is flubbed by a flat sense of space and blocking; she is surrounded by a crowd of schoolchildren, and there's no visible effort to frame her as a principal. Meanwhile, a later scene involving Tarzan, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a locomotive, and a gigantic prairie, seems unsure of how to frame the scene or the moment in an evocative way at all.

Perhaps Yates was struggling with finding the pulse of his characters, instead. The only cast members who make any sort of lasting positive impression are Jackson and Waltz, and this is arguably down to them playing the standard Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz characters. Robbie’s presence is suppressed by what dialogue and mood she does have before the movie shuttles her into a hostage for much of its back half. Perhaps the greatest liability, though, lies with the void of energy and charisma at the movie’s center. It certainly doesn't help that Skarsgård is saddled with perfunctory dialogue, intended to convey plot points in place of building a character. But his flat expression and flatter intonation, his inability to convince us that he's actually in the moment or at all invested in the character, really let the air out of the movie. Or maybe he's very invested, and a terrible actor. These things get difficult to parse when the movie surrounding a lame protagonist is so stiff and tentative.

Perhaps Yates was consumed with the technical side of the production, and its challenges; as the director of the final four Harry Potter films, this does not carry the impression of truth, but it's a possibility. Given this, the effects in this film are infuriatingly inconsistent. The modeling and texture work on the jungle animals is very good, as is the shading and weighting used to integrate them into the environment. We're never convinced that we’re looking at real animals, but it’s forgivable in the context of the overall production design, and the terrifically natural work done on their movement helps to offset it (this does not mean that the manifestation of natural animal actions works in the movie’s favor; it may be the most natural thing in the world for lionesses to greet a familiar scent by friendly headbutting, but it doesn't make the scene where this happens any less non-functional as evocative cinema). These positives are jarring against compositing and body-in-motion shots that looked outdated a decade ago; the effects in the movie’s climactic set piece look appalling.

Given a more proficient technical production, we're still only halfway to the type of old-fashioned spectacle that The Legend of Tarzan is going for (in a nod to this, Yates does something that I unabashedly love by keeping the running time south of two hours; I love it because a longer version of this movie would have likely made my optic and auditory nerves shut down in protest, but we take our favors where we can get them). As it stands, this is a $180 million boondoggle, ponderous and weightless at the same time, big and simple while simultaneously being slippery and indistinct in the mind. You know you've got a problem on your hands when a film like Warcraft looks spry next to yours.