The Legend of Tarzan is a film directed by David Yates, who is best known for his direction of the last 4 Harry Potter films. For those of you that might be super-Potter fans, having Yates’s name on a directing credit might peak your interest, but it means little to me. This film was also written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. Cozad has only ever written one film before this one – Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – and Brewer is best known for writing and directing films like Hustle and Flow (starring Ludacris and Anthony Anderson) and the recent remake of Footloose… so things can only get better from here, right?
When I go see a film, I do my absolute best to not let other critics influence how I might think about a movie, I merely keep in mind the critiques they had and see if I agreed with them or not. I’ve mentioned Chris Stuckmann in my posts before as one of the only critics that I actually follow and tend to trust. He has a YouTube channel (here is the link if you’re interested in checking out his reviews) that I subscribe to and does video reviews with a letter grade scoring system. He gave this film a C+. As I am typing up this review, The Legend of Tarzan sits at a 34% on Rotten Tomatoes. So, with the Rotten Tomatoes score and Stuckmann’s grade in mind, I must admit I didn’t expect much from this film. After watching it last night, I have to say that I think both of those scores are completely unwarranted and I actually question whether or not these critics saw the same film as I did. I’ve disagreed with critics on more than one film this year, but I don’t think I’ve been more founded or passionate about my disagreement with them than I am with this film. Without spoiling anything for the rest of my review, I’ll just say that The Legend of Tarzan is without a doubt the worst film I have seen in theaters this year, and that I would have walked out had I not been with a few good friends of mine. The fact that this film has received anything higher than a 10% on Rotten Tomatoes, and that Stuckmann didn’t give this flim at least a D has left me dumbfounded. But, rest assured, dear reader, that I will do everything in my power to make sure this film is brought to justice.
Okay…where to begin?
I’ll talk about the “good” parts first. At a glance, the story seems like it has the potential to be interesting. It’s a story about Tarzan/John Clayton after his youth and his “return to civilization.” He’s asked by two or three people to go back to the Congo to check some things out for them. That sounds like it could be interesting! Who better to investigate strange things in the Congo than a man who knows it almost literally like the back of his strange gorilla-like hands? Sure, I’m skipping out on details, but that’s because I’m actually trying to help this movie out a little before I rip it to shreds and feed it to the crocodiles.
The movie misses this potential because of the details, and, actually, it’s inclusion of Tarzan himself [See the X-Factor section for more on this]. It seems like there are way too many things going on in this story, but it feels like nothing is going on at all. There are more side stories and back stories (most of which are ignored) in this film than there are brain cells in the nut cases that wrote it.
While this is not a film about Tarzan’s origins, his entire origin story is put in via “flashback” sequences that are terribly written into the story and don’t actually provide any more information than what is already revealed through expositional dialogue in some other scene. Oh, and I put “flashback” in quotes because a flashback is supposed to occur when a character is reminded of something important from their past, except there usually isn’t any call for the flashback scenes, they just kind of happen when Tarzan looks down and closes his eyes. I’m still not even sure whose flashbacks they were, because they will often begin with one character’s face on screen and end by fading onto an entirely different character like they were the one remembering the events and not the one we were with a minute ago.
But enough about story elements, let’s get down into the nitty-gritty details of this story; the stuff that really makes this film stand out… I’m going to run through the entire story and it’s probably going to spoil everything… so just a fair warning that the rest of this section will be filled with spoilers and will be very long.
In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) and Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). We are told via title cards (which is a sin in itself, I’ll take exposition over title cards any day of the week) that Leon has been sent into the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium to find a way to make enough money to pay his vast army of mercenaries. Leon seeks out Chief Mbonga because he has a ridiculous supply of diamonds that he is willing to give to Leon if he can bring Tarzan to him. So, what has been established in this opening is that Chief Mbonga has some beef with Tarzan (though we still aren’t sure why or what) and that Leon is going to bring Tarzan to him for diamonds. So Chief Mbonga is the real bad guy, right? Wrong, actually. We don’t see him again until the film is almost over, despite his obviously crucial role throughout the film. And what about that beef he has with Tarzan? Well, their history together is kept secret from the audience because….the writers think it’s cool to keep vital background information secret? It turns out that Tarzan’s gorilla mom was killed by Chief Mbonga’s son, and Tarzan killed him during his gorilla family’s revenge rampage. I guess that’s reasonable beef, except for the fact that there was no way Chief Mbonga could have known that it was Tarzan that killed his son since the entire hunting party was wiped out by the gorillas.
After the opening scene, we are taken to England where we are introduced to Tarzan, or John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), as he prefers to be called now, and George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson). Tarzan has received an invitation from King Leopold to travel around the Congo for… publicity I guess? And George Washington Williams is an agent from the United States that needs access to the Congo so that he can investigate any potential human rights violations that might be occurring. Tarzan is very reluctant to go for reasons that are, once again, kept secret from the audience. As I mentioned before, he is very adamant about his new identity as John Clayton and insists to Jane (Margot Robbie) that England is, and always has been, his real home. But Jane convinces him to go, and all of that is conveniently forgotten once they reach Africa. It seems to me that the writers wanted to make a complex character who is at constant odds with his new-found “civility” and the primal instinct that he has known and relied on throughout his life, but then tossed that out the window once the actual plot started rolling.
Not a day after their arrival (by the way, that one day is drawn out over 30 minutes because there is reunion scene after reunion scene with characters you don’t know and will soon forget), Leon tracks down Tarzan with his Princess Bride-like tracking skills in a remote tribal village and tries to capture him but ends up capturing Jane instead (ya know, because it’s so easy to get the two confused with each other). Leon instructs his soldiers to take some of the villagers with them as slaves; and in case you were wondering, yes, the soldiers only have racially charged dialogue.
So now Tarzan, his group of tribal buddies, and black George Washington are in pursuit of Leon who is leading them to Chief Mbonga. There is very little in this short section of the film that is not making fun of Sam Jackons’s character, George. He asks how Tarzan knows they’re being led to Chief Mbonga and what their history is multiple times, but Tarzan only ever ignores his question and the tribal buddies only laugh and smile at his naivety. Then, in very Two Towers-like fashion, George struggles to keep up with the rest of the group as they run for miles and miles across the jungle. Then, all of a sudden, they stop at a cliff and jump off so that they can get on a train without telling George what to do. This is where, logically, George either says, “screw all of this nonsense,” turns around and goes home, or jumps off the cliff after them and then dies because he has no idea what he’s doing.
Then they use vines (or was it Spiderman’s webbing?) in the tree they’ve jumped into to swing onto the train as it’s moving… and then there’s a bunch of soldiers for them to fight… and… ugh, this whole sequence is just filled with cringe-worthy stuff… The important part is that there just so happens to be a guy on the train who knows every detail of Leon’s plan to enslave the entire Congo and bring King Leopold untold riches (by the way, this guy’s only job is to drive the train; why he knows the entire master plan is beyond me).
So then they stop the train and Tarzan and George go off on their own because the studio didn’t want to pay the actors playing the tribesman too much. They head into the jungle looking for Tarzan’s gorilla family. Why? I have no idea. But they find them, and Tarzan’s gorilla-bro beats his ass for leaving and nearly kills him. But Tarzan manages to laugh about it and squeeze in a dick joke despite what should have been at least a compound fracture in his arm, a severe concussion, multiple broken ribs, a huge gash in his shoulder from a bite (which is at high risk of infection), and probably an ungodly amount of internal bleeding. But, with the magical power of bonding via dick jokes and substituting stitches with magical ants, George doctors up Tarzan and they’re ready to continue their journey. Tarzan’s gorilla family also wanders off to go do gorilla stuff because his gorilla-bro decided that the beating he dished out was a sufficient “welcome home.”
Meanwhile, Jane has a few awkward dinners with Leon and is constantly plotting her escape. At one point, the boat she’s on floats by a huge family of Hippos. For those of you that don’t know, Hippos are actually bad news. They’re extremely territorial and aggressive, and their bite power, according to Jane, “is strong enough to snap a crocodile in half.” Seeing the family of hippos, she and her tribal buddy seize the opportunity to Houdini themselves out of their various means of entrapment, jump out of the boat, and swim towards the very dangerous Hippo family???? Sure, they make it, but I’m still trying to understand the significance of this scene; because no matter how many times I run that scene back in my head, it seems to me that they could have escaped at any time they wanted to in the past hour of the film’s run-time. But they decided to do it then, because they wanted to make sure that their escape wasn’t too easy.
But Jane’s escape is postponed when she runs up on a family of gorillas and startles them. While she is submitting to the gorillas and making sure that they know she doesn’t mean them any harm, Leon and his goons show up, take Jane and start shooting the gorillas, because we need to make them seem more heartless I guess.
Tarzan is finally close enough to hear the cries of the dying gorillas (but not the gunfire) and rushes in to try and save the day. Well he doesn’t. He helps his gorilla-bro kill a bunch of the soldiers, but that’s it. It turns out that Jane chose to escape literally right before they arrived at Chief Mbonga’s place, so Leon and what’s left of his party have already been there, collected their diamonds, and left by the time Tarzan arrives. He fights a couple of Mbonga’s men and the chief himself before George finally catches up, fires his rifle in the air and gives the sorriest “can’t you guys get over your differences” speech in cinema history. Then, because they’re jerks, the gorillas show back up and scare the literal shit out of the tribesmen. Chief Mbonga reluctantly lets Tarzan leave and he’s never seen again.
Leon, Jane, and the rest of his goons use their secret Belgian teleporter device to bring them back to the port city all the way across the jungle. Tarzan and George catch up just in time to see Leopold’s army arriving via ship. Tarzan then uses his Aquaman powers to recruit a bunch of lions and convince them to herd a thousand wildebeest into the city so that they trample over the army and basically destroy everything.
Leon gets back on his boat with the diamonds so that he can meet the army out at sea and deliver their payment, but George finds a machine gun and shoots at his boat. The special bullets in George’s machine gun were actually made out of a metal called “Unobtainium,” which everyone knows is the most dense element on earth. The immense weight of these bullets alone causes the boat to start sinking, so the army captain has to get on a dingy and row out to Leon. This allows Tarzan time to swim out to the boat and use his super-crocodile-seduction powers to lure them out to the boat and eat Leon. Seeing that his payment is now in the hands of Tarzan, the army captain shrugs his shoulders and says, “oh well, guess we better go home now,” and orders all the ships to turn around. Then hundreds of thousands of tribesmen who were too scared to help at first come out from their hiding places decked out in full battle gear so that they can cheer from the top of a cliff as the ships turn around and leave.
I guess if this film has any redeeming factors, it’s that I don’t have a lot to complain about when it comes to the acting. While Samuel L. Jackson is the only character that really stands out, no one is straight-up bad.
That being said, I will take a point off for wasting Christoph Waltz, who is probably one of my favorite actors. He does what he can with the poor writing, but it’s not enough to make his character interesting at all.
I struggled with which aspect of the film I wanted to critique the most between the story and the visuals. Being an aspiring writer myself, and not necessarily a director, I definitely had more to say about the story than the visuals, but that won’t save this film’s direction from my wrath.
I’ll start with the obvious thing that I think most people will catch on to: the CGI. Hollllyyy crap, is the CGI horrible. There are two sequences in this film (the train and the stampede) that seriously looked like they belonged in a mid 2000’s video game. Sitting in the theater with my jaw dropped, I often found myself wondering how certain sequences and shots had actually made it into the film. There are a few beautiful helicopter landscape shots scattered throughout the film, but the bozos in the visual department decided to muck most of those up with very noticeable CG backgrounds. The animals are poorly done, especially the ones that aren’t named characters. In the scene where the gorillas show up to scare Chief Mbonga’s tribe, the entire cast looks like they are busy looking for someone’s lost contact lens instead of looking at the gorillas.
Besides the horrendous CGI, the worst part of the film’s visuals were the editing and camera work. There is a scene closer to the beginning of the film with Jane sitting in a tree and Tarzan just walking up to the tree; I counted five or six different shots of him walking up to this tree before I verbally expressed my annoyance with the film and caused everyone else (the other ten people in the theater) to look my way instead of at the screen. The editing is also atrocious in the action sequences. I felt as though most of the fight scenes had actually been skipped because the camera seems to never be focusing on the actual fight. Instead, it looks as though the camera only ever focuses on one character and their actions/reactions to things that I’m supposed to guess are happening in the fight. Most of the time, the hits during the fights are either edited out or the camera pans away from them. Specifically, in the fight between Tarzan and Chief Mbonga, Tarzan’s “finishing blow” seems to go from extreme slow motion prior to the blow, and then speeds up after the blow; but, what actually happened was they edited the actual hit out and wanted the fraction of a second that was now missing to look natural. Spoiler alert, it didn’t look natural guys.
I know most people will disagree with me on this comment, but thank God there wasn’t any Phil Collins in this movie. The music isn’t great, but there are two songs in the score that stuck out to me. The rest is not consistent with any one style or sound. You’ll hear a score that sounds inspired by tribal music one moment and then really dumb EDM in the next moment. The music is especially bad in action sequences.
X-Factor: 1/10, Needs Less Tarzan
After leaving the theater with my friends, we all agreed that the most frustrating part of the film was that there were lot of elements of this story that seemed like they would make a really good film if they took Tarzan out. When you learn that King Leopold of Belgium was one of the last evil monarchs before the start of World War I, and that his exploitation of the Congo region is well documented, and that George Washington Williams was a real person, it somehow makes the film more aggravating to think about. Underneath all that Tarzan bullcrap, there is a really interesting political thriller/Indiana Jones-esque adventure story that these writers missed out on (and that probably isn’t far from what the real story is like). Historical fiction doesn’t work when you take a mythical character like Tarzan and try to force him into a real historical context, that’s just lazy writing. If the film had been about Samuel L. Jackson’s character and his investigation into the treatment of the natives by the Belgians, and shown the larger implications of how the division of Africa among the Imperialist European nations ultimately led to things like World War I and the persisting political and economic turmoil that Africa has struggled with to this day, then it probably would have been a much better story at the very least.
Overall: 3.0/10, A New Record Low!
While I wouldn’t say that The Legend of Tarzan was the worst movie I’ve seen in theaters (looking at you, Minions), it was still the worst movie I’ve seen this year so far. I am hesitant to say that it will be the worst too, because I’m really not looking forward to seeing Ghostbusters, but I will make that sacrifice so that you don’t have to, dear reader. That being said, you’re better off throwing your money in the garbage than going to see this film. These are the worst kind of bad films too, because they’re not so bad that they’re funny. You can tell that it takes itself very seriously, which makes it that much worse.