We know the name “Tarzan”, but what does that mean? Who is he? In David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan, he’s a hero without a personality, a legend without an interesting story. The movie gets caught between some interesting questions like can Tarzan be civilized and what does it mean for him to engage in his wild side, but never pursues those questions to interesting ends. It’s also unsure if it wants to tell an origin story or come up with something new, and satisfies neither so we’re stuck with a bunch of dull flashbacks to break up the monotony of a white savior story complete with a damsel in distress.
Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is an emissary for the King of Belgium, who wants a diamond mine so he can pay an army of mercenaries and rule the Congo. In order to gain access to the diamond mine, Rom must get past Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounson), whose forces protect the land. Mbonga wants revenge against Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård), and will deliver the diamonds in exchange for the Lord of the Apes. But Tarzan has given up the jungle life and lives peacefully as John Clayton III with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). However, with some convincing from Jane and the American George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), Tarzan goes back to the Congo to investigate rumors of slave trading, so coincidentally he’s right where Rom wants him.
It’s a convoluted story and one that’s a slog to get through. There’s no sense of excitement or energy coursing through the picture. This is a story about a man who was raised by apes and swings through the jungle, and yet it’s surprisingly dull. Yates and cinematographer Henry Braham love taking in the gorgeous landscapes, but there’s no propulsion to the narrative and no reason to invest in these characters, especially Tarzan.
In The Legend of Tarzan, the title character is a set of abilities, but he has no personality, which is a shame because there’s the possibility for an interesting internal conflict. Why does Tarzan want to bury who he was? Why is he running from that life? One moment he’s insisting he’s John Clayton III, the next he’s proudly showing a group of schoolchildren how his hands have become apelike. At best, he’s ambivalent about his past, and ambivalence is a lousy place to start a character arc. There’s no sense of transformation as Tarzan reverts to his wild ways or any notion that he’s reluctant to do so.
Where The Legend of Tarzan starts to go from dull to outright uncomfortable is how it wholeheartedly embraces the white savior trope. Early in the film, Williams calls Tarzan, “Africa’s favorite son,” and that’s a bit discouraging considering you don’t normally think of Nordic white men when you think of Africa. But the film unthinkingly makes Tarzan the best African, a legend to the African people, a leader among the tribes, and relegates all black characters to either sidekicks or foes.
The sole redeeming aspect of the movie is Waltz’ villainous performance. You would think by now that Waltz would have grown tired of playing the heavy, but he seems to relish the mild-manner aspect of villainy, and while Rom’s motives are convoluted and his plan overwrought, at least he has a personality, which is more than I can say for just about anyone else in the film. Even when the movie saddles him with an idiotic weapon (rosary beads; no, I’m not kidding), Waltz takes it in stride and plays the character with a quiet affability. You may not root for Rom, but he’ll at least have your attention when he’s on screen.
I wish the same could be said for the rest of the picture. For those worried that The Legend of Tarzan is this year’s Pan, I can only say that Tarzan is far worse because at least Pan is an interesting disaster that makes some bold, unconventional choices. The Legend of Tarzan plays it so safe at every turn that it forgets that a daring adventure should be daring.