Why do filmmakers always louse up Tarzan? The 1914 Edgar Rice Burroughs book has a sensational first half, before the inevitable Victorian-Edwardian–era corniness and cultural supremacy kick in. Raised by apes, the child of shipwrecked English aristocrats doesn’t turn out a dearie like Mowgli in The Jungle Book but a badass killer who swings soundlessly through trees and drops nooses on his foes (human and animal). He also finds his dead parents’ treehouse (still with their skeletons) and teaches himself to read (though he has no idea how the words actually sound — or that the skeletons are his parents). The old Johnny Weissmuller pictures dumbed Tarzan down, but he and Maureen O’Sullivan looked scrumptious in their skimpy loincloths (at least before the Hayes Office came along and covered them up). Fifty years later, Robert Towne wrote a script that honored its source, but it was so mucked-up by English director Hugh Hudson that Towne gave the credit to his dog.
The new Tarzan film, The Legend of Tarzan, plays as if a dog ate part of the script. It opens with Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan — né John Clayton, Lord of Greystoke — back in his baronial English manse, where he’s “hybridizing coconuts,” with no intention of returning to the Belgian Congo. His splendid backstory, meanwhile, is sprinkled through the action in brief, hazy flashbacks, so the whole thing feels like a sequel to a movie that was never made. So damn frustrating!
Why does Clayton go back to Africa? It takes a lot of setup. If I followed it correctly, a tribal chief will hand over a load of diamonds that Belgium needs to finance its burgeoning slave trade in return for Tarzan, who committed some unspecified-until-later offense against him. It’s the job of the Belgian king’s nefarious envoy (Christoph Waltz) to lure Clayton back under false pretenses, and his unwitting accomplice in that task is George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who comes to Clayton for help compiling evidence that the king is, indeed, enslaving the indigenous population. Clayton’s wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), insists on coming along because that’s what Jane does. She’s plucky that way.
Director David Yates did a yeoman job with the last few Harry Potter installments and made the fine British mini-series State of Play. (The American movie adaptation was negligible.) But either he has no interest in the African landscape or else the studio pared away the connective tissue, leaving nothing but formula dreck. The Legend of Tarzan feels as if it wants to be longer, to breathe a little and get down. The staging isn’t inept, but individual shots seem truncated, the action pared down to its unoriginal essence. As it stands, the CG apes are impressive, the elephants (I don’t know if they’re CG) magnificent, and a short scene in which a pair of lions nuzzle Clayton absolutely lovely. The humans could have used some help.
No, that’s not fair. Skarsgård could have made an excellent Clayton/Tarzan under different circumstances. He has the right combination of refined features and a rangy body that looks at home in the treetops. I don’t think it’s his fault that he can’t get a rhythm going and ends up looking like a paler Viggo Mortensen. Among the movie’s innumerable disappointments is that it takes an hour for him to remove his shirt (he never takes off his trousers), while Robbie is fully clothed from first to last. Wouldn’t those trousers constrict Tarzan’s vine-swinging? Wouldn’t Jane be more comfortable in a pair of jungle shorts? Sorry to be superficial, but you miss at least half the fun in a Tarzan movie without bare limbs.
Perhaps the thinking was that a half-naked Jane would be too predictably sexist. Oh, P.C., where is thy shame? And who’s kidding whom? Taken prisoner halfway through, Jane sassily asks the villain whether he expects her to “scream like a damsel.” A disarming line — except the screenwriters are covering their asses. She stays tied up for most of the movie. The filmmakers do make sure to keep the material’s inherent racism in check. Individual Africans males are allowed to shine in action sequences, and Jackson is imperturbably Jackson — modern, wisecracking, and anti-colonialist. His character has a backstory: He once stood by while Native Americans were slaughtered. He will not be so wimpish again. He will even get hold of a machine gun and blast his enemies to kingdom come. He will fight the power. That power includes the Church, at least implicitly. Waltz’s hammy baddy swings a necklace with a crucifix on the end that turns out to be a most effective garrote. The Legend of Tarzan touches all the liberal bases, clumsily.
By the way, the onscreen title has a little “R” next to it, denoting a trademark. That’s very strange. I’d figured that the character of Tarzan — having first appeared in a 1912 short story — was by now in the public domain. Did Warner Bros. execute a deft colonialist move and snatch it away from less-wealthy competitors? The Legend of Tarzan is unlikely to spawn imitators. This commercial vine is likely to snap, and The Jungle Book has the monkey-man franchise sewn up.