Lord Greystoke is living comfortably with his beautiful wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), in England when his past comes knocking at the door. The Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) wants Clayton to travel to the Congo to investigate and legitimize Leopold's activities. Clayton initially refuses, but after the pleading of American diplomat George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), the man formerly known as Tarzan agrees to travel to Africa. Jane tags along, and together, the couple return to their homeland to reunite with old friends. Unfortunately, not everybody is happy to see Tarzan, which makes it a difficult return trip. Things go south, and soon enough, it's up to Lord Greystoke to save his country and defeat the colonial empire in the Congo.
If anything, The Legend of Tarzan presents a very convincing argument for why origin stories are a necessary evil. Some have praised this film for avoiding the traditional "Here's how he became Tarzan" setup in favor of a standard adventure with an older John Clayton, but honestly, I don't see their point. Yes, Yates does avoid the superhero origin story playbook. That is unquestionable. But what's the point of doing that if you're just going to inject bits of the origin story throughout the whole movie which is exactly what this film does? Unfortunately, Yates is stuck in a weird spot- audiences know Tarzan, but they haven't seen him on the big screen for years. Younger generations probably only know the character from the Disney movie, and you can see that the director is torn between telling the origins of the character and attempting to do a standalone adventure.
The result is a jumbled mess of storylines, plot devices, and characters, none of which amount to anything significant. The filmmakers do make a noble attempt, I will say that much. Tarzan has fleeting moments of thrilling action, deft humor, and poignant character work, which fits in the conventions of the summer blockbuster. Yates has crafted something distinctly old-fashioned here, a film that feels both goofy and grand, and for that, I have to commend him. But story and character should always come first and foremost, and in that respect, any visual success that this movie has is brought down by the weight of its failures. It's a movie that seems confused, one that lacks a single voice driving the creative and narrative drive of the project.
To clarify, let's go over some of the storylines in this movie, shall we? First, there's the aforementioned origin story, which takes up a good chunk of time. Then there's the main drama surrounding Leon Rom, Jane, Williams, and Tarzan, which on the surface seems to be the main story of the movie. Beyond that, there's a brief detour into the jungle where Tarzan has to face off against his former ape friends because they're mad that he abandoned them. Oh, yeah, there's also a revenge plot involving Chief Mbonga, his son's death, and Tarzan. None of these stories take center stage at any point during the film, and the end result is a lot of hopping back and forth between the different narratives, hoping that the audience eventually gets involved in any of them.
Without a clear focus, the film settles for a sort of tedious dullness, one that causes the film to become slowed down by some truly sluggish pacing. The actors make their best attempt to create likable characters, and at times, they succeed. But for large chunks of the runtime, they're also caught up in the slog, dragged along with the dramatically inert plot. Samuel L. Jackson's flashy, clearly motivated Williams is a main highlight, giving the movie some of its most humorous moments. Christoph Waltz is once again taking on a villainous role, and he's fine, even though Leon Rom is a pretty thin character. Margot Robbie is a beautiful and talented actress, but she doesn't have much to work with here. And finally, Alexander Skarsgard certainly has the physique to play Tarzan, but I don't know why we've collectively decided that Tarzan needs to be a humorless cipher. Skarsgard plays it well, he just doesn't manage to craft a compelling character.
The Legend of Tarzan is doing quite well at the box office so far, and although that $180 million dollar budget is really insane, there is a decent chance that we see a sequel to this film. Despite a highly disappointing initial installment, there's the potential for something fun and exciting here and Yates has a terrific cinematic eye. But unfortunately, the first chapter in the big-screen rebirth of Tarzan is a misfire, juggling too many characters and too many stories, resulting in a flat, mostly uninteresting journey. Visual panache and sweeping setpieces provide momentary entertainment, but from the opening moments, it's clear that The Legend of Tarzan simply has no idea what story it wants to tell. And it just falls apart from there.
THE FINAL GRADE: C (5.7/10)
Image Credits: Guardian, Screen Rant, Hollywood Reporter, Joblo