In a summer full of movie sequels, The Legend of Tarzan feels like it fits right in. Except for the fact that Tarzan isn't a sequel.
David Yates' adaptation of the literary hero's story shines in a few areas. It's immaculately shot, it's fast-paced and gripping, but where the movie falters, like other Yates movies, is its storyline. The entire film feels rushed, like it's trying to compact two or three movies into an hour and 50 minutes. Important details are skimmed over, and the flashback mechanism is unabashedly overused in order to justify picking up with Tarzan and Jane a decade after the events in the novel take place. Yates spends half the film explaining what he thinks are important details through flashbacks — like how Jane and Tarzan met — and the other half of the film assuming people know the intricacies of The Legend of Tarzan, leaving gaping holes in the story that are never addressed.
In many ways, The Legend of Tarzan feels like a sequel. I regularly found myself thinking that while this film had a couple of great scenes and tender moments, I would have really liked to have seen the first installment of the franchise beforehand. But this is the first film, and that's the biggest issue the movie has to contend with.
Despite the glaring issues with the narrative, there's enough good in The Legend of Tarzan to make it a decent enough watch, specifically, the cinematography and photography. The film is based in the Congo, and Yates' team uses the location to bring the magic of Tarzan to life. Wide shots of the rolling Sahara combined with brilliant CGI animals makes the film feel as realistic as possible, which shouldn't be too surprising considering it's the same formula Yates brought to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2, and one of the reasons that film was as wildly successful as it was.
In many ways, The Legend of Tarzan feels like a sequel
Another shining facet of the film is Margot Robbie, who has secured a spot in Hollywood as one of the most talented and electric actors to watch. Aside from Samuel L. Jackson, the rest of the cast is mediocre at best, including main actor Alexander Skarsgård, just barely hitting the marks they need to make the film believable — but Robbie excels in her role as Jane, Tarzan's wife.
The Legend of Tarzan isn't a bad movie, but it is empty, full of missed opportunities. It gives you a glimpse of what could have been, but never fully gets there. It's like discovering a bag of cookies in the back of your kitchen cabinet and tearing it open, just to discover all that's left is crumbs.
The Legend of Tarzan takes place 10 years after he's left the jungle. He now goes by John Clayton III and lives in Victorian London with Jane. It's a dull life, but Tarzan has become a bit of a celebrity, allowing him to live a grandiose life among other people. When he's invited back to the Congo by the Prime Minister of Belgium, he and Jane return to their childhood home only to discover that the livelihood of their family and friends is under the threat of widespread genocide.
Yates spends too much time trying to turn new characters important when he should have focused on what makes The Legend of Tarzan truly special: Tarzan's relationship with animal characters, and the intense fight and chase scenes that occur throughout the jungle. Whether it's the pack of gorillas that he grew up with and considers family, or the lions that he used to roll around with, watching Tarzan interact with these creatures and then swing through the forest with them is exhilarating.
Part of that has to do with the way the film is captured. The film is magnificently shot, and experiencing it in IMAX does wonders for bringing the Congo to life. There are short periods of time — when there's no dialogue and Yates just follows Tarzan swinging from vine to vine — that you wish would go on forever. It's the equivalent to watching a climactic car chase scene in a Bond or Fast and Furious movie, but replace the roads with towering trees and the cars with fantastic animals.
Despite the powerfulness of these scenes, however, Yates returns far too quickly to the disorienting storyline and the film loses its magic just as quickly as it rediscovers it. You go from experiencing moments of euphoric movie watching to scratching your head over something that feels like it should have been introduced in a previous film, and it's that level of disorientation that inevitably makes The Legend of Tarzan feel lackluster.
The only thing that saves the storyline from itself from time to time is Margot Robbie and Samuel L. Jackson. The former is magnetic, drawing attention every time she appears on screen, and for good reason. Robbie saves the movie when it's falling, and unfortunately, that happens quite often when it's left to rest on the shoulders of its leading man, Skarsgård. Jackson, on the other hand, is typical Jackson, and is the much-needed comedic element the film takes for granted. It's way too serious, and it never appears that anyone other than Jackson is having any fun with it.
Even with the handful of radiant positives the film has, it still feels mediocre at best, like a half-hearted attempt to reinvigorate the story of Tarzan that never quite gets there. I wanted The Legend of Tarzan to be a successful reimagination of a classic literary story, but that idea is never fully discovered. It's missing a level of stability needed to carry a film of this nature. Yates allows the movie to become occasionally whimsical, but without the base of a bulletproof storyline that doesn't mean anything.
The Legend of Tarzan feels like the sequel to a much more interesting film, and quite frankly, I wish Yates would have just focused on the elements of Tarzan's story that made it so interesting in the first place instead of foolhardily trying to modernize it. The Legend of Tarzan tries to swing from vine to vine, but instead finds itself plummeting pretty quickly.