Film Review: The Legend of Tarzan (M15+) (USA, 2016)

Tarzan is a character that I have enjoyed over the years. I’m far from a fanatic, but I did like the concept of a man living in the jungle, residing with its inhabitants to become one of them, as well as its fish-out-of-water plot. I grew up watching Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes with the Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert as the ape-man and I enjoyed the Disney adaptation of the story as well. So when I heard about another adaptation of Tarzan, I was cautiously optimistic.

Cautious because of the many reboots, re-tellings, remakes and many other words with the prefix “re-” diluting the film industry these days; but optimistic because of the major talent involved. We have an underrated actor Alexander Skarsgard (whom I’ve enjoyed in The East and especially War on Everyone), rising star Margot Robbie, acting veterans Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz and director David Yates, who was responsible for the last four magically entertaining Harry Potter films. You even have the script co-written by writer/director Craig Brewer, who was responsible for the great Hustle and Flow and the both underrated Black Snake Moan and the Footloose remake.  How could I not get a little bit of my hopes up? Little did I know…


Set a decade after the events of the original story, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), called John Clayton III after his family name, is now residing in Victorian England with his loving wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). The plot starts off when Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), an envoy for the ruthless King Leopold, comes up with a plan to take out Tarzan. Rom plans to capture Tarzan for Chief Mbonga (a wasted Djimon Hounsou), an enemy of his in exchange for rare diamonds to fund the armies of King Leopold and continue his reign over the country with his rule of slavery. Unfortunately, Jane becomes entangled into the plot, and it is up to Tarzan and his companion, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to return to the jungle and not only save Jane, but to stop Rom from delivering the diamonds.


I hate to say this to a film with this much talent involved, but The Legend of Tarzan was a huge let-down. I don’t even know where to start. For a reported $180 million dollar film, you expect the CGI and green-screen to be immersive. But there are many scenes where the two are noticeable to the point of one having to point to the screen in frustration. Like a scene involving Tarzan, George and his fellow men swinging onto a speeding train.

The storytelling (or the script, who knows) was rushed and slipshod, with the flashback scenes in particular being integrated into the film so poorly without any transitions whatsoever that it comes off like the director was just ticking it off a checklist, like a tragic scene involving a death of a loved one. It never comes off as emotional and will elicit more of a sigh than a tear.

It also does not help that the film is nowhere near as entertaining as the premise of the film strives to be. A film about a heroic ape-man who can communicate with animals, swing on vines and fight for his own kind should elicit some joy, but the tone of the film is so self-serious, that it sucks a lot of the potential fun. Even the action scenes in the film are poorly done, with lots of quick-cut editing, tight camera angles and some misused slow-motion.


The actors do their best, but their roles are so thinly-developed that they never make much of an impression and worse, the actors basically play themselves rather than inhabit their own characters. Alexander Skarsgard is fully committed to his role, with his fine presence and unique look, but without much personality, he becomes more of a cardboard cutout of a hero rather than a full-bodied (which he physically is) person.

Margot Robbie valiantly tries her best to amp up her role with sass and quick wit (much like herself), but unlike her calls denying to be called a “damsel”, she most definitely is one, and it is a shame that she’s stuck with a role like this. Christoph Waltz basically reprises his villainous role from Inglourious Basterds, but with a bigger paycheck and much less personality to sink his teeth into.

The only stand-out in this film who manages to single-handedly add mirth, fun and joy into the film is Samuel L. Jackson. Like Robbie, he basically plays himself, but he seems to be the only actor that is having fun in the movie. In interviews, he has stated that his character (which is based on a real person) should headline his own movie. I wholeheartedly agree.


Apart from some decent acting and interesting story ideas (like transfixing the story of Tarzan into real-life events), The Legend of Tarzan was a disappointment for all involved. But thank Samuel L. Jackson for his entertaining performance, as he makes the film more entertaining that it has any right to be.


The Legend of Tarzan opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday, July 7th.


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Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.