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The Legend of Tarzan is the Best-Looking Bad Superhero Movie of the Year

By  · Published on June 30th, 2016

Another classic character gets another disappointing reboot.

Tarzan is a tricky character for the movies these days. Never mind that the classic pulp stories aren’t that attractive to modern audiences (see John Carter and The Lone Ranger). For the iconic Ape Man, there also are certain expectations that are difficult to meet right now. He can no longer be the ridiculously macho B-movie hero in loincloth we’ve known him as in the past, but he also can’t be dragged too deep into accurate historical context, as he should be, without losing some of the adventurous spirit. The Legend of Tarzan does actually manage to find the material a stable middle ground between the standard Johnny Weissmuller version and going full Lawrence of Arabia, and it almost works. Unfortunately, poor storytelling gets in the way.

Directed by Harry Potter staple David Yates and scripted by Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), the latest adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s stories plays like the superhero movie it should be. And it does so with great interest in the colonial backdrop of Tarzan’s Africa and is as sensitive to that history and all the people and animals involved as it can be. The movie also retains Weissmuller’s signature yell and a good deal of unbelievable action and fantasy. Tarzan’s ability to communicate with any beast, plus much of the magical physics behind his trademark vine-swinging, make him seem to have special powers.

Whether he does, and if so how he got them, is never answered. The Legend of Tarzan wants to avoid the typical origin story structure for its hero, instead jumping right into a tale of a grown-up and civilized John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) and his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), as they’re invited back to their former home in the Congo (aka “African Congo,” so as not to be confused with any other continent’s, if such existed) for a tour of its alleged progress in the decade since they left for England. However, some of their background – Tarzan being raised by gorillas and his and Jane’s first encounter – is occasionally presented in flashbacks.

It’s not clear how or why they left Africa and chose to stay away, other than John/Tarzan wanting to keep his love safe. And the reason they do go back is so convoluted and obviously suspect that it’s best not to think about it. The point is the couple return, with a rootin’-tootin’ African-American cowboy (Samuel L. Jackson) in tow, and it’s actually a trap set by a wily Belgian envoy seeking to turn Tarzan over to a vengeful tribe chief (Djimon Housou) in exchange for a bounty of rare diamonds that will pay for an army of mercenaries that will help him enslave and pillage the whole territory. Like most historical action movies, we may be reminded of the sad truth that real villains succeeded in such schemes, and there was no white savior in the jungle to thwart colonial rule and prevent the 150 years of tragic effects that followed.

But this is still supposed to just be a big, beautiful, sprawling adventure movie, about a hero needing to save his girl (along with the whole population of central Africa) from a greedy bad guy. Still, the context can’t be ignored. Jackson’s character is even a real-life figure, the American Civil War soldier and writer George Washington Williams, who did in fact travel to the Congo Free State in the late 1880s and report on abuses he witnessed there, as he does at the end of this movie. Aside from being a historical figure, he also serves domestic audiences with both an American and a civilized black man’s perspective on the Tarzan story, which itself served the British Empire with a way to relate to the exotic African’s need of socialization by way of the POV of a white character born into a savage-like-me narrative.

Anyway. On top of all that are some spectacular fake landscape shots of the region (all filmed on sound stages in the UK and digitally enhanced) and some compelling character dynamics, including Tarzan’s complex relationship with his adoptive ape brother (also created digitally). The movie makes a point of there being good guys and bad guys in every facet of humanity as well as in every other species in the animal kingdom. Then it also squashes the significance of that idea by having Tarzan always capable of conquering —whether through soothing behavior or reason or his fists – any one of them. But that’s “conquer” in a good sense, as Jane describes it.

More frustrating is the fact that those compelling dynamics are all well and good in diagram form but they involve characters we never have reason to care about. Tarzan is terribly underdeveloped as a hero, and any back story is so chopped up and comes so late that it doesn’t help much in our understanding of who he is, how he’s evolved in his years out of the jungle, or what it truly means for him to be back there. Jane has more appeal, if only because Robbie is clearly attempting to force an empowering woman beyond what was typical at the time and in past portrayals of the character, but her romance and chemistry with Tarzan is supposed to be just understood because he Tarzan, she Jane.

It’s hard to tell if The Legend of Tarzan simply expects us to know its main characters before coming in – not an unfair presumption to have given how many times Tarzan has graced the big screen and seeing as how other superhero reboots are aiming to drop origin stories with familiar properties – or if the faults are a matter of sloppy storytelling and bad editing. Either way, there is plenty of the latter, not just with the randomly inserted flashbacks and the sense that there’s a lot of moments missing but also in the overall pacing. The movie takes its time, often appreciably, for so much of the journey through the jungle that it’s shocking how rushed the third act and climax are.

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That it fails so much in the end is extremely disappointing given that most of the time it looks and feels better than any other superhero blockbuster this year. You can tell so much craft was put into the visuals and even the maintaining of a tone that implies wonder and thrills around every bend, so it’s once again strange how a movie like this can put so little effort into making sure the plot and characters are satisfying. It’s enough to say Yates should venture into the same territory again, just not with Tarzan and friends. Perhaps he should direct Disney’s Jungle Cruise or a remake of Congo or another Harry Potter spinoff set in the wizarding world of Africa. Anything with personality.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.