‘The Legend of Tarzan’ Review | Bungle in the Jungle

Watching The Legend of Tarzan is like watching Crocodile Dundee 2 in a world where Crocodile Dundee 1 didn’t exist. It’s a rehash of a storyline that the filmmakers didn’t tell in the first place, and are already bored with. Worse, they actually expect us to be excited about reliving an adventure that we’re technically seeing for the very first time.

Of course, everybody knows the gist of Tarzan’s story: he was raised by apes, he fell in love with a “civilized woman,” et cetera, et cetera. But there’s a big difference between knowing a story and giving a damn about it. There hasn’t been a decent Tarzan movie in nearly two decades (and arguably much longer than that), so it was an enormous mistake on the filmmakers’ part to assume that audiences didn’t need a bit of a refresher course on why this character still matters, and why he’s so exciting.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Instead of focusing on the wonders of Tarzan and his adventures , The Legend of Tarzan opens with the title character (Alexander Skarsgård) long since retired, and devoid of any interest of returning to his roots. The weather is nicer in England, he’s got a big fancy house and is married to the woman of his dreams (Margot Robbie). He’s so over it that he has to be guilted into returning to the Congo by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American investigating the Belgian slave trade, and so back he finally goes with Jane by his side, to deal with the villainous Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) and to confront a lifetime of baggage.

That baggage is the reason why The Legend of Tarzan feels so much like an orphaned sequel. His backstory here is in some ways iconic and in some ways very specific, and it doesn’t necessarily conform to every version of the character that we’ve seen before. The film doles out this particular history of Tarzan through flashbacks, but those flashbacks are spread thinly throughout the film, and usually only pop up just moments before the information actually becomes relevant to the plot.

So The Legend of Tarzan comes across as a mostly perfunctory experience. It huffs and puffs from one set piece to the next, doing away with plot points instead of building dramatic tension around them. It doesn’t help that all the actual adventure is generally presented with that same lack of enthusiasm. Tarzan has been thrilling audiences for over 100 years, but he seems to have stopped now, falling victim to filmmakers who are more interested in capturing a sense of reverence than one of exhilaration. 

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

The Legend of Tarzan isn’t a catastrophe. Skarsgård is a capable Tarzan, and he might have even been a good one if the film didn’t force him to mope around all the time. Waltz, Robbie and Jackson are given completely underwritten roles but are charismatic enough to shine through anyway. And even though the majority of the film’s action sequences are frustratingly inert, the gigantic climax is glorious, with an impressive sense of scale and a noteworthy series of exciting (and sometimes ridiculous) pulp hero moments.

But what’s good in The Legend of Tarzan never quite makes up for everything else that’s ineffectual. It’s a frustrating misstep for the character, who is so very often dramatized and so rarely dramatized well. Here we had the right cast and the right budget but the wrong approach. The Legend of Tarzan needed to make us care about this character again, but unfortunately the only thing relatable about him is his desire to stay retired.

Top Photo: Warner Bros.

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.