He might be one of the best-known literary creations of the 20th century, but poor old Tarzan has had a ropey transition to the big screen. Johnny Weissmuller’s authentically-awkward era is fondly remembered but hasn’t aged well. 1984’s Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes was an interminable bore. And the less said about Disney’s Phil Collins-infused animation, the better. The question of how to modernise Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic, which hides many uncomfortable world views behind its formulaic plots and stale characters, is one to which even this latest glossy-but-tame adaptation can’t muster an answer.
The early signs are promising. Scrapping the typical origin story formula, we find our one-time Lord of the Apes living the high life in Victorian London as John Clayton (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård), having already met and married Jane (Margot Robbie). The cracks quickly appear, however, when he is persuaded to return home to the Congo under the auspices of a diplomatic mission to open trade negotiations with King Leopold’s Belgium. This reconnecting with his African roots is really just a convenient excuse to invite a wave of relentless, soapy flashbacks charting Tarzan’s past as a human raised by apes.
Screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer at least have enough awareness to thinly address the less palatable aspects of Burrough’s creation, inserting several sub-par subplots focusing on racism, the class-system and some bobbins about the King of Belgium assembling a giant army to enslave the continent. But for the most part, these are forgettable sidelines to a ponderous chase movie as Jane is kidnapped by Christoph Waltz’s moustache-twirling villain as part of a ploy to trap our chest-beating hero.
What ensues is an overly talky, turgid adventure particularly during the opening two-thirds as Tarzan spends far too much time moping around his old haunts across the Savannah wondering if he should give in to his wild nature. When your story primarily focuses on a feral child who swings from vines and talks to ostriches, moody introspection is not the kind of modernisation required. And while the pace picks up considerably in the closing moments, it’s all unleashed far too late to enliven this tedious tale.
It’s not all bad. The actions scenes, when they do finally swing into view, are stylish and exhilarating. Director David Yates (making his first film since Harry Potter’s Deathly Hallows double whammy) infuses the fight sequences with the pulse racing intensity of a war movie. The standout moment plays out like a Batman movie set in the amazon, as Tarzan and a gang of apes emerge from the shadows to lay the smackdown on a large group of Belgian mercenaries.
The visuals, too, are masterfully realised. The layered and immersive jungle setting bristles with vibrancy and life while the computer-generated menagerie of creatures are able to convey more emotion with just a look than the entire human cast are able to muster through their stilted dialogue.
The talented cast do at least try to make the most of the material. Samuel L Jackson is a light-hearted treat as America’s crack-shot ambassador George Washington Williams, Waltz is always good value when playing a sophisticated schemer and Robbie brings plenty of vigour to Jane – even though it’s frustrating to see a character so determined not to be a damsel spend almost all her screen time waiting to be saved.
As for Skarsgård, he certainly looks to part thanks to a brutal training regime and perfectly captures his character’s otherworldly edginess. But he’s also a painfully bland human being who, much like the film he carries, spends far too much time restraining his wild instincts instead of allowing them to burst forth with ferocious, colourful life.
Runtime: 110 mins; Genre: Adventure; Released: 6 July 2016;
Director: David Yates; Writers: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer;
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Margot Robbie