Tarzan of Ar-ape-ia would have been a fine title for the most recent film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most popular dime store novel creation. Dispensing with the ape-man’s origin myth except for in frequent, impressionistic flashbacks, The Legend of Tarzan picks up after Tarzan has returned to English society you-Jane wife at his side. A Belgian opportunist (Christoph Waltz trying his darndest not to chew this movie’s scenery) is trying to lure Tarzan to a Congolian tribal king’s enclave in exchange for the enclave’s diamond riches. Tarzan takes the bait in hopes of uncovering a slavery plot threatening his homeland. An American abolitionist (purple-studded Samuel L. Jackson) and Jane (spunky Margo Robbie) go along for comic relief and damsel-with-an-attitude attitude, respectively.
Beasts are battled, vines are swung from, and the movie is almost hung from it’s own unrelenting self-seriousness. Colonialism and slavery aren’t laughing matters, sure, but crocodile mating calls and ostriches pulling 3D gags are, but The Legend of Tarzan can’t figure out what kind of movie it wants to be – pulp fun or century-and-a-half-too-late political commentary.
Now, I don’t mind a movie that swings wildly from comedy to tragedy as long as both are delivered with conviction, as long as both serve a similar point, and as long as the filmmaking itself is inventive and thrilling. If you’ve been following along for a while, you know I’m talking about Gore Verbinsky’s The Lone Ranger, which, even if you hate it, you have to admit attempts to be something grand. The Legend of Tarzan has none of that daring, cinematic or satiric, so if you’re not into the legend already, you’ll likely be scratching your head wondering why this movie exists at all.
The Legend of Tarzan is interesting for the way it, um, “updates” is entirely the wrong word, cribs the plot of Lawrence of Arabia for its story. By the time Tarzan is hijacking a train and uniting the animal and human kingdoms of the Congo to fight against the armies threatening to overrun its sub-Saharan landscapes, you might find it fun just to discover how the filmmakers manage to shoehorn in the next plot beat from David Lean’s lauded epic. It is a testament, perhaps, to the indelibleness of certain stories that they can be adapted to fit very different genres and kinds of heroes. Lawrence of Arabia is a good story even when it’s shirtless and hoisting itself on the back of a stampeding wildebeest. Movies are fun even when a particular instance is not.
Could you do worse at the theater this weekend? Absolutely. The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t treat you as if you are stupid. Could you do better? Absolutely, but if you’re in the blockbuster mood and you’ve already seen Finding Dory and The BFG, The Legend of Tarzan is there. Use it as an excuse to watch Lawrence of Arabia again of for the first time, and it’ll be weekend well spent.