1.5 stars (out of 4)
Him, Tarzan. You, sleepy.
Put the loincloths away: The Lord of the Apes will not be rescuing the most dire summer movie season in ages. He may be able to nimbly swing from vines, but he lands with a thud in an ill-conceived adventure. Simply put, The Legend of Tarzan (opening Friday, July 1) is so dreadful that you will root for the gorillas to eat the evil humans just so it will end faster.
This is a gung-ho character that dates all the way back to 1912. There was a film franchise in the 1930s and ’40s (starring a former Olympic swimmer and Mia Farrow’s mother), a dozen more books and countless TV series. Disney got in on the act in 1999 with an animated flick that featured lots of Phil Collins songs and a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn as the voice of the man himself. And throughout these iterations, the basic plot remained unchanged: an orphaned boy who was raised by friendly apes in the jungle returns to the wilds as a fearless adventurer.
So who’s ready for a morose drama in which a stone-faced Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) reluctantly treks back to Africa to stop a slavery ring in the 1890s?
Don’t call him Tarzan, by the way. He goes by the name John Clayton (i.e., the Earl of Greystoke) here. Since leaving the jungle, he has forged an aristocratic life as a lord in the British parliament. He sips tea like a gentleman. His loving wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), holds down the stately homestead. Then nature calls. In an early scene, John is invited back to the Congo to serve as a sort of goodwill ambassador and trade emissary. At first, he says no. “It’s hot,” he sneers. An American Civil War soldier turned humanitarian (Samuel L. Jackson, looking and sounding like he dropped in from the 1990s) changes his mind, pleading with him to come along to expose possible slavery in the land.
Little does Tarzan/John/Greystoke know that he’s merely a pawn in a game of class warfare. Sinister King of Belgium Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) has promised the tribal chief (Djimon Hounsou) that he will deliver the former jungle boy in exchange for diamonds. Make that diamondzzzzz. With that misguided windup, the nodding off might start before Tarzan et al. even step foot in the jungle. A century’s worth of swashbuckling fun has been stripped away.
Rom kidnaps Jane. You won’t care. Jane fights back. You won’t care. Tarzan communicates with gorillas. You won’t care. Skarsgård turns into an action hero and teams up with Jackson to fight the bad guys. You won’t care. Skarsgård doffs his shirt. You won’t care. OK, fine. You’ll care. But not enough.
The performances stink up the jungle too, as the actors go through the motions with a collective look of pained embarrassment on their faces. Surely Quentin Tarantino will not be pleased that two members of his regular troupe, Jackson and Waltz, ham it up in a dud.
It didn’t have to be this way. Just three months ago, The Jungle Book illustrated how to create a fully immersive and entertaining call-of-the-wild experience. The answer isn’t a glum ape-man solving a sinister colonial conspiracy. Though the film’s budget reportedly ballooned to $180 million, an engaging and surprising script always trumps the sight of CGI’ed wildebeests repeatedly stampeding the land.
Without that cinematic magic, all that remains is a smattering of laughter and applause when Jackson delivers the most knowing line of the movie: “Can we please just stop this?”
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