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