Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Movie Review: The Legend Of Tarzan (2016)



Since getting back into a regular routine with my movie-watching again, I’ll admit that what I’ve been looking at over the last little while have been pretty good overall. Hell, the only real down point of late (Jem And The Holograms) was only watched by yours truly as a Plan B; I originally set out to see Suicide Squad with a friend but, due to matters outside of both of our controls, we were unable to. Will that film break the streak when I eventually get to it? Too late, honestly, because this film seems to have done it for me. Now, even though the classic Disney iteration of Tarzan was the first film I ever remember watching in the cinemas, that isn’t going to factor into how I see this. The problems with this one are so numerous that I don’t even need to. This is The Legend Of Tarzan.

The plot: Eight years after leaving the jungle and settling down in English society, John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård), otherwise known as Tarzan, has been called back to his homeland through a veiled invitation from Belgian official Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz). With his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) and American businessman George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) in tow, he returns to the Congo and discovers the reason for his invitation: A tribal leader wants him dead in exchange for a cache of diamonds that could save the king of Belgium from financial ruin.

We’re talking about a Skarsgård once again, and unfortunately he isn’t nearly as good as Stellan on this one. Don’t get me wrong, he manages well with the royal air that his character has been given and there are shades of the animalistic quality that we associate with Tarzan, but not nearly enough of them. Robbie as Jane is… oh God, I sincerely hope that her performance in Suicide Squad isn’t nearly this bland. Then again, thinly-written character, thinly-blocked performance. Sam Jackson, while I have quite a few gripes with how his character is handled on the page, is still captivating and makes for easily the most entertaining presence in the film. Waltz, after the depressingly disappointing turn he made in Spectre last year, manages to do a better job at a more low-key villain, but that’s probably down to he strikes a balance between the gentleman and the outright bastard. Bonus points for making a rosary come across as a surprisingly effective weapon. Oh, and Jim Broadbent is playing a stereotype of a stereotype of a stuffy British guy as the Prime Minister. The amount of face straining he gets done in the few minutes he gets on screen is staggering, and not in any of the good ways.

I was willing to let go the immediate comparisons I could draw between this and The Legend Of Hercules based purely on the title, if it weren’t for the fact that this shares quite a few of that film’s serious shortcomings. For one, the effects work is outright horseshit. Let’s start with the animal animations, because of cause this film couldn’t spring for a single real animal. While I could rail on the just plain weird use of certain animals, up to and including a crocodile on a leash (or it could be an alligator, I don’t really think it matters when talking about a film like this), I’d rather stick to how bad these things look. The gorillas are the closest they get to anything serviceable, and even then it comes across like Playstation 2-era graphics, and from the very first frame in which you can see an animal, it instantly looks wrong. Then there’s the tree-swinging segments, a staple if you’re going to even attempt a Tarzan movie today, and it looks like something that escaped an Asylum production. Dead serious. And then to round up this CGI turd trifecta, going from scenes with effects work to scenes without is incredibly jarring every single time it happens.

The second point this shares with that abysmal work from not-long-enough ago is that, much like Hercules in that film, Tarzan is barely acknowledged as such. Now, in Legend Of Hercules, that was a footnote next to the mountain of weak mimicry and lame storytelling surrounding it. Here, it seems oddly fitting since he doesn’t really come across as Tarzan in the first place. The cogs seem to be in place for a decent character arc, this Hook-esque transition between the ordinary man and the man of legend, except no such transition seems to exist beyond the groundwork. Skarsgård is way too comfortable in the role of English gentleman and seems to just switch his more feral traits on and off as the plot needs him to. And that’s just in terms of the character on his own; his place within the plot is just as spurious. It comes across more like this is a feature-length episode of a kitschy TV show starring Tarzan than anything else. You know, something along the lines of Xena or Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, where the character would get involved in disparate plots involving historical figures. Oh sure, he gets involved in the main empire vs. locals plot by essentially being dragged into it through personal invitation, in more ways than one, but the reasons for said dragging in don’t need to exist. Hell, when we actually get to the conclusion of that story and we see why Chief Mbonga wants Tarzan dead, it ends on a damp squib that not only fails as a resolution but also disappears from the rest of the film, despite how it could have really helped with the whole “the jungle teams up to fight the enemy” vibe that I think they were going for. The film seems far more interesting in the story involving slaves in the Congo than it is Tarzan, but that in it of itself presents some pretty glaring problems.

With Tarzan being the supposed main character, George Washington Williams essentially plays his sidekick. This is a serious problem for a number of reasons, and him being a more engaging screen presence is near the bottom of the list. Further up is the fact that he gets reduced to a joke about licking gorilla testicles, and even higher up is how he is a real-life person where Tarzan assuredly isn’t. The real-life George Washington Williams actually went to the Congo, actually witnessed the horrific conditions the natives were placed under by the Belgians, and actually reported and brought wider attention to it. Not that you’d be able to tell this from the film itself, as he just follows Tarzan around and serves mainly to make him look like even more of an alpha male than he already is. And then there’s the biggest issue, and something that pushes this film past just being lame into offensive territory: Between how he only seems to serve the narrative purpose of making jokes or saving Tarzan’s life when he is incapacitated, he pretty much embodies the Magical Negro trope; the black character who exists solely to assist the white lead. Even ignoring his performance in Django Unchained, which is pretty much the perfect answer to him playing this kind of role in the first place, this would feel wrong regardless of who was in the role. When the film wants to show a sympathetic depiction of the cruel lives of the slaves of the Belgian Congo, maybe it shouldn’t have gone with one of the more racist writing attitudes out there in the process.

Of course, that could have been overlooked if it weren’t for the fact that this film takes itself so damn seriously. Self-awareness is the true mark of humanity and this entire production seems to be lacking in it considerably. This was meant to be a more mature and darker take on the original story, similar to what The Jungle Book did earlier this year; the difference being that the film intended for a more family-friendly audience treats its audience more seriously than this seems capable of doing. Aside from the aforementioned primate oral sequence, and you have no idea how depressing it is just to be typing that in all seriousness, there’s also the main plot which starts out on a note of trade negotiation and debt being built up by the Belgian monarchy. Um… I thought that we collectively decided that trade negotiation was a dead boring plot point back with The Phantom Menace, but apparently not. For a film that wants the world to take it so seriously, with its supposed look at Tarzan’s mental state upon re-entering the jungle and its themes of slavery, it seems either uncomfortable being serious or just plain bored with itself. This isn’t helped by how the film doesn’t seem to know how to balance the fantastical jungle man elements with the more grounded slavery and diamond-nabbing elements. Things are surreal enough with the bad effects work, and this further disconnect seems to make the notion of this not even being a Tarzan film even more likely. This is especially true with the big climactic fight at the end, where Tarzan rounds up all the animals of the jungle to do basically nothing while the mercenaries pretend to fight them off to make it look like things are happening when they actually aren’t.

All in all, this is one big mass of problems that equal up to a pretty friggin’ lame sit. The acting is iffy, the action is dull, the effects work is dire and the writing seems determined to tell a story other than what it has been expressly required to tell. To say nothing of its extremely misguided attempts at Oscar bait material, in a film that is fated only for maybe a couple of Razzie nominations, which fall hideously short out of disrespect for history and storytelling in general. It takes something pretty damn broken to make me reconsider my stance of “films, not documentaries”, and turning a real-life hero into an almost literal butt-monkey is a nice and easy way of doing just that. It’s worse than Alice Through The Looking Glass, which at least had some good visuals to it; nothing of the like to be found here. However, since there are still a few shards of a decent film buried in the script, it fares better than The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a work that has ultimately no right to even exist.

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