The Legend of Tarzan: Welcome (back) to the jungle

​Tarzan, classic vine-swinger and “lord of the jungle,” returns to theaters with a muddled, haphazard effort from Warner Brothers entitled “The Legend of Tarzan.”

Unfortunately for moviegoers, nobody’s really sure what that legend truly is.

Unlike previous incarnations of the Tarzan film series, “Legend of Tarzan” opens 10 years following Tarzan’s first meeting with Jane. They’re now happily married and living in a family estate in England, when John Clayton (aka Tarzan) receives an invitation from the King of Belgium to visit Clayton’s birthplace, the Congolese jungle he has just colonized. The rest of the primary storyline involves an nefarious plot to turn Tarzan over to a vengeful tribe warlord seeking to kill Tarzan in retribution for the death of his son.

“Legend of Tarzan” feels like the sequel to an origin film that never got made. As a result, scenes dedicated to Tarzan’s youth being raised by gorillas in the jungle are crammed into the storyline. Compelling though they may be, the frequent flashbacks often muddle an otherwise paint-by-numbers screenplay from Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. In trying to tie in young Tarzan, older Tarzan and civilized John Clayton together in one cohesive script, Cozad and Brewer don’t get any of the three right.

“True Blood” star Alexander Skarsgard certainly looks the part of Tarzan with his long flowing locks and chiseled, muscular exterior. Since “Legend of Tarzan” essentially makes Tarzan into a superhero, looks are pretty much all Skarsgard needs to be effective in the role.

However, much of the early portion of “Legend of Tarzan” focuses on Tarzan’s alter ego, John Clayton, the British aristocrat Tarzan was to become before his English parents died in the jungle. The film opens with Skarsgard as Clayton and it’s easy to see how uncomfortable Skarsgard is with the role, simply biding his time before the shirt comes off and his hulking grunts can take over. A better actor could have conveyed both sides of John Clayton/Tarzan well, but filmmakers clearly opted for style over substance with Skarsgard.

Margot Robbie, on the other hand, clearly handles the balance between British life and jungle life well as Tarzan’s wife, Jane. It’s uncertain whether Robbie’s magnetism or Skarsgard’s underwhelming performance is responsible for making Jane a more interesting and compelling character to watch throughout the film, but Robbie proves herself to be the single best thing about “Legend of Tarzan.”

Oscar winner Christoph Waltz has made a career out of playing mustache-twirling villains, but his portrayal of nefarious, power hungry Belgian emissary Leon Rom feels more cookie-cutter bland than usual. Rom isn’t menacing or conniving, just a mediocre brand of evil without much character development. Waltz hasn’t underperformed this much since his failed villain turn in “The Green Hornet.”

Well versed at stealing films from a supporting role, Samuel L. Jackson does just that as American emissary George Washington Williams, a marksman with a rifle who ultimately serves as Tarzan’s right-hand man in the jungle. 

A small, but important part of “Legend of Tarzan” deals with colonial Belgium enslaving the tribes of Congo. Within this poorly-written screenplay, Jackson is able to breathe life into complex issues of race relations and equality while still serving the greater goals of the movie. Jackson is the perfect choice for the film and the only actor who could have made Williams more than a stereotype.

David Yates, best known for his work helming the final four “Harry Potter” films, essentially does the directing equivalent of treading water, keeping audiences afloat with largely engaging action sequences and well-shot scenery. But Yates never takes “Legend of Tarzan” to the same level as “The Jungle Book,” Disney’s superior CGI-heavy film adapting a classic jungle tale to the big screen.

“Legend of Tarzan” probably isn’t for younger viewers either as the film certainly earns its PG-13 rating in violence and a sexually provocative scene between Skarsgard and Robbie early in the film.

Moviegoers will certainly not be disappointed in any money they spend to see “Legend of Tarzan” in theaters, but it shouldn’t be spent at the expense of vastly superior films still in theaters like “Finding Dory.”

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