Movies need drama. This is a fact. No matter what the genre, if we’re always sure of the outcome, nothing matters. In The Legend of Tarzan, there’s not a moment where anything is in doubt. No one is superior to Tarzan. He’s the unstoppable, unbeatable Terminator of the jungle. He’s always going to win, the bad guys are always going to lose, and the audience is never going to care.
Directed by David Yates, The Legend of Tarzan has some solid ideas at its core. It’s a sequel to most of the Tarzan stories we know and love. So being raised by apes, becoming the king of the jungle, that’s all in the past. Now he’s John Clayton, a respectable Englishman who is lured back to his home in the Congo. There he’s forced to fight for the country he loves, which is in danger of becoming enslaved by a tyrannical king.
And yet, this film about an iconic character, who is trying to prevent an entire country from potentially being enslaved, is a bore. Lots of that comes from Tarzan’s invincibility, and the rest comes from a disjointed story and a distinct lack of adventure.
There are several different stories in The Legend of Tarzan, none of which are that interesting. First is the main story, that of Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) and Jane (Margot Robbie) going back to Africa. Then there’s the plan of villainous Leon Rom (Waltz), who lures Tarzan back to the jungle, as well as the flashbacks, which fill in some of the blanks from Tarzan’s past. In theory, these three things should all fit together nicely, but they don’t. Once Jane gets kidnapped by Rom, seeing those characters together feels significantly less interesting than Tarzan just being Tarzan. You find yourself hoping certain scenes will end sooner to get back to the other stuff.
The problem, besides the obvious one of not enjoying a huge chunk of the movie, is the Tarzan stuff you’re looking forward to is very hit or miss. For a few brief moments, we see what you’d assume Yates wanted this film to feel like—Tarzan, shirt off, jumping off cliffs, flying through trees on a vine, fighting an ape. This can be quite beautiful. But for many of those scenes, he’s just fighting people like any normal human. And Samuel L. Jackson’s character, George Washington Williams, is always nearby to ground the movie in reality. That sounds like a good idea in theory, but instead it hampers the film, which should be more fantastic and less down-to-earth.
All the while, Tarzan is just too much for anyone. None of the slaves ever seem scared. Jane is totally fine being kidnapped. Williams flies by with an awe-shucks demeanor. You keep feeling like there should be a balance between Tarzan’s larger-than-life presence and the horrible situation at hand. But there’s not. He’s bigger than all of it. Maybe if after eight years away from the jungle, Tarzan had some rust on him, there would’ve at least been some internal conflict, some struggle that wasn’t solved with a fist.
There’s none of that. He comes back and jumps right back into the mix, literally.
With the exception of Margot Robbie’s Jane, very few performances in the movie feel like they have any substance. Skarsgård’s choice to make Tarzan focused and introverted works, but also cuts off a bit of humanity the film is lacking. Then Jackson, Waltz, and even Djimon Hounsou are basically playing characters we’ve seen them play a million times before, but with less enthusiasm.
The Legend of Tarzan takes such a great character, with such a huge canvas, and completely mires it in dullness. So much of the film drags, bores, and disappoints. The drama is nonexistent, the humor is sparse, and the action is bland. What’s most impressive about The Legend of Tarzan is how unexciting it is.