52. The Legend of Tarzan

The Legend of Tarzan is the film I was most looking forward to, this weekend.  And that’s a strong statement, because there were four films released this weekend (won’t be getting to the fourth, quite yet) that I was highly anticipating.  I held off on this one until I could get to an IMAX theater because, when IMAX is an option, it’s really the only way.

The trailers for Tarzan were fantastic and Margot Robbie is a perfect choice for Jane.  Even though Alexander Skarsgård played my favorite character on my least-favorite HBO show, True Blood (after a decent first season, it really wasn’t good.  But it introduced the world to a couple of talents with true star-potential.), I wasn’t as sold on his casting.  He just didn’t feel rugged enough for the role of Tarzan to me.  Nonetheless, I was excited for this one.

When it boils down to it, though, The Legend of Tarzan is a well-intentioned near-miss.  Without question, the action (of which there is a plethora, once the movie picks up steam) is amazingly staged and executed.  In this arena, Tarzan truly feels unique, unlike anything else that audiences have seen.  The viewer is put right in the (ahem) swing of things and gets a vibe for what it’s like to actually be joining in on the festivities.  At least, that’s how it feels in IMAX 3D.  The effects are flawless and I personally enjoyed seeing all of the different animal species get involved, as that’s pretty uncommon in films, as well.  The jungle locations and settings are breathtaking and truly take advantage of the large-screen, high-resolution format.

The rest of the film is a mixed bag.

The cast is mostly strong (Samuel L. Jackson is fun, as usual.  And, while it was just declared that Scarlett Johansson is the highest paid actress in history, I’m going on the record and declaring Margot Robbie as the strongest challenger and most-likely successor to that throne), but my instincts on Skarsgård were unfortunately on point.  I don’t dislike him and he gives it his all, but I feel like he’s miscast.  His baby face and soft eyes just don’t translate to a character who never knew his parents and was raised in the deep jungle by gorillas.  He never feels like Tarzan, despite, as I said, a game effort.  (Although he and Robbie both also take advantage of the large-screen, high-resolution format.  The film has some good and some bad, but no ugly, regardless of your particular persuasion.)

The writing is also uneven.  The characters are classic stereotypes.  The great Christoph Waltz is wasted, here, as his role is just written as evil, mustache-twirling Christoph Waltz.  Robbie’s Jane is the now-common spunky love interest.  I do have to defend the film here in one regard, however.  There has been talk about her being a captive for much of the film, which, yes, is true.  But when people complain about these sorts of things, their objections carry a suggestion that the female character in question is portrayed as being a victim because she’s less capable than the male character(s).  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Tarzan is also captured but escapes only through a fortuitous rescue.  Jane is sufficiently strong, but not particularly unique.  Nor is anybody else.  They’re cookie-cutter archetypes with the occasional wrinkle thrown in, for good measure.  But occasional wrinkles aren’t enough.

The story is where the good intentions come into play.  As with The BFG, I’m not acquainted with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s original Tarzan stories, but this was an approach I’d never seen before.  And that was likely the idea.  After all, people are constantly saying how they want something new.  And here, they get it, with regards to Tarzan.

But studios need to stop listening to those people because they don’t mean it. In general, audiences aren’t interested in something new and they don’t want a domesticated Tarzan and government/tribal politics.  And that’s what the first third/half of the film consists of.  Eventually, the Tarzan we expect comes to fruition, and the film picks up the pace and actually becomes pretty fun.  But it takes a while.

During that opening stretch, there are flashback scenes sprinkled in, showing the origins of Tarzan and his meeting with Jane.  When these popped up, I kept wishing that this was the movie I was watching.

Director David Yates tried to present us with a fresh Tarzan.  But what he should have realized is that it’s been decades since there was a live-action Tarzan film, so any Tarzan would have been a fresh Tarzan.  Sticking to the basics would have been well-advised, especially considering the film’s astonishing $180 million budget.

Aside from that, the characters and dialogue really need to pop in these modern wannabe blockbusters.  Marvel has completely raised expectations for these types of films, all across the board.  Before 2008, The Legend of Tarzan would have been a massive hit.  Now, it’s just another summer movie and will have to depend on the foreign markets to make a profit.  And that’s fitting for a film that has its heart in the right place but its priorities in the wrong ones.

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