THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE LEGEND OF TARZAN"
The Legend of Tarzan is indicative of a trend that's been plaguing cinema for a while now. This is a prime example of a Franchise Starter. It is not designed to be one movie, it's designed to be at least three movies. Maybe more. The goal is clearly to launch a franchise that will span years and rake in untold sums of money. There's nothing inherently wrong with sequels, mind you, but when studios start thinking too far down the line, they run the risk of screwing up the little picture in their attempt to paint the bigger one. And that's exactly what happens here.
What do you expect to see in a Tarzan adventure? A guy in a loincloth swinging from vine to vine and communicating with animals, his beautiful girl Jane by his side? That stuff only shows up at the end. Mostly, this is a picture that walks the audience (slowly) to that point. In other words, it's all set-up for intended future installments. We learn how John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard) was raised by creatures of the jungle before eventually returning to society and becoming civilized. We see how the attempts of Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to exploit a region of the Congo for its riches forces Clayton to return to the way of life he left behind. We meet George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American ambassador who becomes a trusted ally. And, of course, we are introduced to Jane (Margot Robbie) and shown that she is more than a mere damsel in distress. Finally, the “rules” of the jungle are outlined, such as the proper way to settle a dispute with a massive, angry gorilla. The very last shot is what we came to see: Tarzan swinging on those vines with his simian pals alongside him. Cut to a Hozier song over the end credits, and it's a wrap.
The true focus is Clayton. Huge sections of his story are told via flashback, which proves to be a mistake, especially since they aren't assembled together. Instead, they are scattered throughout, arriving at points when something needs to be explained to us. Director David Yates (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) doesn't visually differentiate the flashbacks enough, which occasionally leads to confusing moments where you think you're seeing something “current,” only to realize it's actually something from the past. Either way, it's all pure exposition, designed to make sure we know everything crucial for those Tarzan pictures that will be coming somewhere down the road.
It's bizarre that the least interesting character here is Tarzan himself. Waltz is always good playing a bad guy, and he's menacing as Rom. Robbie makes Jane just as tough as she is beautiful; the film's best scene is a face-off with Rom where they both wrap their hatred of one another in phony civility. (It's worth noting that Jane probably shares more scenes with the villain than with the hero.) Jackson, meanwhile, provides effective comic relief, even if most of what he's required to say and do feels far too contemporary for the period setting. That Tarzan is so bland certainly isn't Skarsgard's fault. He's not officially Tarzan until the last few minutes. Mostly, he's John Clayton III, a character with little appeal. There's a reason Edgar Rice Burroughs didn't include Clayton's name in the titles of any of his books.
Visually, The Legend of Tarzan is accomplished, even if some of the CGI has that soft-focus grey/brown haze that's often used to disguise the fact that things aren't 100% photo-realistic. The animals are convincing as they stampede through the jungle and other places, and the few shots of vine-swinging and tree-scaling are nicely vertiginous. That said, the action in the film is often absurdly over-the-top. They've taken Burroughs' time-tested character and made a loud, soulless movie that positions him as a modern cinematic action hero. Again, the intention is to take a well-known piece of intellectual property and turn it into a glossy spectacle that will make audiences beg for more.
By every surface appearance, The Legend of Tarzan has a lot going for it. The stars are big, the performances dependable. There are eye-popping effects and big action scenes. It looks like it would work, yet it doesn't. Scratch that surface and you find an underdeveloped plot riddled with confusing flashbacks and an overload of dull exposition, plus a hero who takes forever to become the iconic figure we all know him to be.
The Legend of Tarzan shoots itself in the foot by being thoroughly unconcerned with making itself the best movie possible. It's so weak that it will probably never inspire the sequels it was blatantly, unmistakably created to generate.
( out of four)
The Legend of Tarzan is rated PG-13 for for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.
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