Tuesday, November 15, 2016

In short: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

I appreciate that it’s rather difficult to attempt to update Edgar Rice Burroughs’s pulp stalwart Tarzan to modern times, seeing that there are quite a few things central to the character that many people today would call “problematic” (many of them even for good reason). As a pulp reader, I’m perfectly fine with a film making heavy changes to these characters if that’s needed to keep them palatable to a non-specialist audience – it’s not as if the process would make the original stories disappear, nor will I be sad to see their racist, sexist etc elements go.

So it’s not in its attempts at updating Tarzan that David Yates’s film fails for me, it’s in the way it fails to update the character to anything interesting. Because this is a major mainstream production, its courage fails the film regularly. While I certainly like the whole “colonialism bad” approach, choosing the Belgian Congo for the plot is ill-advised, because the film really can’t go into the true atrocities committed at that time and place without exchanging being an adventure movie for something much darker, and certainly not anything Tarzan belongs in. Consequently, Legend awkwardly stops somewhere halfway between pulp adventure and horrible truths - shoehorning Opar in for good measure - and just sort of shuffles its feet. And don’t even let me get started about a film that makes various gestures towards giving Jane (Margot Robbie) some agency of her own, only to then let her kidnapping be Tarzan’s main motivating factor.

For Alexander Skarsgard’s Tarzan, you see, is that least interesting kind of hero, a reluctant one who spends much of the first half hour throwing around tragically bored looks. Which is pretty much what I felt during that part of the film, too, what with there about five minutes of something of interest or relevance happening in it. Turns out, stuff actually happening is rather important in an adventure movie. Who knew? Most probably not David Yates, going by the blandly polite, generally uninvolving way he directs action sequences that show little creativity or sense of fun, the truly embarrassing CGI vine-swinging, and the ponderous pacing he gives a film that doesn’t have actually all that much to ponder, and which could use a good kick in the arse.

Keeping to that form, Skarsgard’s Tarzan and Christoph Waltz’s big bad Leon Rom mostly seem vaguely bored, going through the motions but leaving charisma – and seemingly interest in entertaining their audience – somewhere in a different movie. The only actors on screen actually alive are Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (or George Washington Williams, as the film curiously calls him) and Margot Robbie, but of course, the film doesn’t deign to give them much to do. I could go on here, complaining about a Tarzan film that seems embarrassed about the hero’s traditional dress, his comic relief chimp, and so on, but that would be nearly as tiresome as the film itself is.

The Legend of Tarzan is a mostly tedious slog that really demonstrates how good many of the low budget Tarzan movies were, what with them actually containing scenes of Tarzan having adventures.

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