When Edgar Rice Burroughs published “Tarzan of the Apes” in a pulp magazine in 1912, even his active imagination probably couldn’t have envisioned how many mostly mediocre and sometimes painfully awful versions of the vine-swinging, ululating, Jane-loving King of the Jungle would follow.
From the silent features of the 1910s and 1920s through the kinda terrible Johnny Weissmuller B-movies of the 1930s and 1940s through the horrific “Tarzan the Ape Man” with Miles O’Keeffe and Bo Derek in 1981 through the ambitious and competent “Greystoke” in 1984 through Disney’s animated “Tarzan” in 1999 (not to mention all the stage plays and TV shows and radio serials), we’ve had tons of Tarzan adaptations — but not a single legitimately great movie.
That streak remains intact.
“The Legend of Tarzan” is certainly the most expensive and the most epic adaptation. The special effects available today are an obvious advantage over the old days when we’d see Tarzan yelling and then we’d cut to stock footage of animals in the jungle.
But there’s always been something a bit ridiculous about the whole Tarzan premise, and while the talented cast and a solid director make for a serviceable and intermittently entertaining adventure, there’s very little about this film that screams, YOU GOTTA SEE THIS.
(And that includes the alleged 3D, which is put to terrific use in exactly one shot late in the movie and is otherwise a non-factor.)
It’s the late 1880s. Alexander Skarsgard (“True Blood”) plays John Clayton III, the Earl of Greystoke, lord of the manor, husband to the beautiful Jane (Margot Robbie) and respected member of British politics and society. He’s also a celebrity who is mobbed by children and adored by all because they know his backstory: parents marooned after a shipwreck, Mom and Dad die, raised by apes, lord of the jungle, talked to the animals, etc., etc.
Ah, but that’s all in the past until an American named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson, sporting a distracting hairpiece I think was designed to make him look younger) persuades John to return home to the Congo to investigate rumors the King of Belgium is using slave labor.
We never see the evil King of Belgium — but he can’t possibly be more mustache-twirlingly rotten to the core than his emissary, the slithering, manipulative, psychopathic Captain Rom, who is played by Christoph Waltz, and while Christoph Waltz is a great actor, it might be time for him to take a break from playing villains who love the sound of their own voices. The casting is almost too easy.
The plucky Jane, who’s considerably more resourceful and independent than just about every previous incarnation of the character, insists on accompanying John. After all, the Congo was Jane’s home too; she grew up there because her father was a missionary/educator.
George Washington Williams is handy with a shotgun and loyal to his new friend, but the character exists mainly for comic relief and to look on in astonishment as John reunites with old friends including lions and elephants.
Which brings us to perhaps the most serious drawback of the film: the jungle creatures. They’re all CGI, and far too many times, they look VERY CGI. Some of the apes have more animated facial expressions than mid-1990s Jim Carrey, while ostriches, the aforementioned lions, hippos and other creatures look great from a distance but not so believable when the humans are “interacting” with them.
“The Legend of Tarzan” also stalls a bit whenever John or Jane gazes into the distance, indicating it’s time for another flashback sequence about John’s boyhood in the jungle and then his first meeting with Jane, when he sniffs her and picks at her and then nearly dies protecting her.
The good stuff: Skarsgard’s a specimen who manages to not look silly when he’s swinging from tree to tree or nuzzling lions, and he’s a decent enough actor. Robbie looks great and gives Jane loads of sass, even when she’s shackled and verbally sparring with the loathsome Captain Rom.
Djimon Honsou has a couple of memorable moments as the tribal chief who wants Tarzan dead — and for a legitimate reason. It’s also an upgrade from previous Tarzan films to see the Congolese portrayed as a proud, smart, family- and community-oriented people.
Though there’s still a lot of Tarzan hero worship going on — even though it appears as though half the men in Tarzan’s home village are just about as good as he is when it comes to the whole running-climbing-jumping-survival thing.
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by David Yates and written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, based on the Tarzan stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue). Opens Friday at local theaters.