“The Legend of Tarzan” is an epic, fantasy-adventure film. It is a movie that presents simultaneous narratives — the first about the greed and ignorance that defined 19th century colonialism and racism and the other about protecting those we love.
From this description it might be easy to conclude that Warner Brothers’ “The Legend of Tarzan” is a very good movie; unfortunately, that’d be the wrong conclusion. Truthfully, the whole movie is a little discombobulated; It doesn’t know what it wants to be. Director David Yates had an ambitious and surprisingly original vision for his adaptation of the vine-swinging, bellowing ape-man we all know and love, but a lack of clarity and an unnerving lack of intelligence and dignity sent Tarzan tumbling through the weeds of the cinematic jungle floor.
Christoph Waltz’s character, Leon Rom, is the embodiment of all that is evil about colonialism and racism. On the other hand Samuel L. Jackson’s character, George Washington Williams, a real Civil War veteran and emissary to King Leopold of Belgium, is the embodiment of civil and human rights. Yet Yates and his screenwriters leave this rich thematic conflict untapped, as Williams is reduced to a sidekick-type gag and Rom reduced to a plot device, so Tarzan can beat people up and save his sweetheart Jane Porter from certain death. Worse yet, Williams convinced Tarzan to return to his jungle homeland for the sake of social justice, even though Rom had struck a deal to bring the jungle natives Tarzan’s head on a silver platter in exchange for diamonds beforehand. In other words, Williams’ social justice argument to get Tarzan back to the jungle is there merely to please the audience and make a superficial statement.
If statements on the evils of racism and horrors of colonialism are really that important then they should be treated that way by giving them real plot and thematic significance, not cheap salutes. The film’s shortcoming here is that this issue wasn’t handled well in the context of the overall story, which is mainly because this conflict should actually be its own story, not just a sideshow. If George Washington Williams were the protagonist, a kind of activist with a goal to see colonialism uprooted in the heartland of Africa, that would make for a great story. Instead, this ambitious and important narrative thread ended up muddying the plot and, worst of all, made the whole film seem inauthentic.
Another shortcoming that bogs down “The Legend of Tarzan” is the romance between Tarzan and Jane. Aside from Tarzan not wanting Jane to come to the jungle with him out of fear for her safety and a very cliche make-out session between the two of them, we never feel any sort of real connection or intimacy between the two characters. This makes the sequence when Tarzan tears through the jungle to rescue Jane from her captors that much less emotionally captivating. There’s no real development of their relationship or attachment, only denigration. Like George Washington Williams, Tarzan and Jane’s romance is reduced to a gag when we see flashbacks of their first encounters in the jungle. So when Jane is in peril, chained to the rail of a boat, beaten and thrown to the ground, we as the audience just don’t feel the stress and turmoil. Tarzan and Jane’s relationship was never dignified, never made to matter as intensely to the audience as we’d like to believe it matters to Tarzan and Jane. Instead the screenwriters decided humor and unoriginal damsel in distress situations matter more, which leaves the audience wanting more emotional payoff from the real danger that Jane is in, from the real terror she should have felt and the real stomach-sinking feeling Tarzan should have felt from the moment Rom and his men tore them apart.
Epic fantasy-adventures are a dime a dozen in the movie industry today, and very few are done well. “The Legend of Tarzan” is no different, but truthfully, that’s hardly the fault of David Yates and his screenwriters. A Tarzan movie that isn’t an epic fantasy-adventure would be a hard sell to any producer or studio in today’s tent-pole climate. A Tarzan movie without high-flying action wouldn’t be a good movie anyway, but there are ways to do high-flying action well and there are ways to do it like everyone else. Unfortunately, “The Legend of Tarzan” settled for the latter.
While the vine-swinging sequences are actually pretty cool and the wild-west gun-slinging element is highly creative, none of it serves the purpose that great action should — to deepen our connection to the intensity of the characters’ desire for their goal, and to invest us deeply in the outcome of all the frenzy. Instead, the action is utter spectacle, completely devoid of feeling or over-arching purpose. I actually cringed when a melodramatic slow-motion sequence of Tarzan flying through the air toward an ape, which was also flying through the air toward Tarzan, concluded with a close-line collision that sent Tarzan hurtling to the ground. It was painfully cheesy. Audiences everywhere have seen that sequence at least a hundred times before. If you can’t give us intelligent, dignified storytelling, at least give us some original action.
All in all, “The Legend of Tarzan,” as a finished product, is anything but legendary. It’s effort, and maybe even its intention, however, is quite legendary. The film attempts to condense three different narrative threads — romance, revenge and good-versus-evil — into a single unified plot. Though that lack of clarity is its exact downfall, the effort is admirable. It is possible to make those three types of narrative threads work together, but it takes a very clear sense of identity, of what the movie wants to accomplish, and it takes a lot of intelligence and dignity.
It’s hard to be sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say that David Yates was negatively influenced by external factors like the wishes of studio heads or budget-to-box-office return projections. Yates is a competent director, having done the last four installments of the Harry Potter series. Nevertheless, he never decided which narrative thread was most important, and in his effort to capture all three, he failed to make even a single one emotionally significant to his audience.