jpark’s review published on Letterboxd:
The entertainment value of Tarzan's legend has never been the issue, but rather the ability to coax some sort of meaning, some relevance and/or profundity out of his tale has. Shockingly, David Yates fails to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. The Legend of Tarzan is shockingly lifeless, a slog that felt like three hours and turned out to be just under two. He seems to be trying to reverse the tale of Tarzan, which traditionally has been bringing the man out of the beast, and rather tries to depict coaxing the beast back into the man. Tarzan, at the beginning of this film, is something of a posh Brit, still carrying the mannerisms of a reformed jungle-man but undeniably dull, remarkably normal. While this film finds it's home in London, it's unbearably dry. For Tarzan to undergo the inevitable transformation, there needs to be some catalyst, some motivation to revert back to his primal state. This is where Yates falls the hardest, as he tries to balance to vastly different sets of mind.
First, there's the obvious Jane and Tarzan relationship. Jane embodies the damsel in distress, with Tarzan as the aspiring rescuer. His pursuit is dry, his passion absent. We get that Jane belongs to Tarzan and vice versa, but anyone who buys that relationship is merely referencing back to the Disney animated classic, not this film, Nothing is done to forge a believable love, nothing suggests that these individuals would die for one another. The film simply relies on our ability to buy into cheaply woven relationships, so conditioned to the storytelling device that little to no effort was put into making it feel plausible, let alone convincing.
Curiously, Yates decides to skip back and forth between incentives. Acting in contrast to the romantic subplot, Tarzan forms an allegiance to his homeland, one he initially felt no obligation to protect. The story introduces very potent themes of race, exploitation and abuse, with the core mechanic of the narrative being the chance that the entire colony of the Congo would be enslaved for diamond mining. It's really quite unnecessarily convoluted, with warring tribal relations, questionable pack allegiance and Tarzan's relations to animals arbitrarily thrown in along the way. The Legend of Tarzan tries to make a superhero of Tarzan, molding him as a champion of the people, a guardian for the oppressed. These two motivations for Tarzan run against one another, never written with enough skill to work hand in hand.
Again though, The Legend of Tarzan's greatest crime is feeling lifeless. Tarzan should not be boring, it's a man-ape that can swing across jungles, interact with ferocious predators and calls brutish gorillas his parents. The core of the Tarzan mythos lies in identity. Identity vs identity confusion, intimacy vs isolation. The nature of man and the nature of, well nature. I appreciate Yates' attempt to mix it up, but he failed to recognize what he had going for him.
Once again, the purely entertaining tale of Tarzan. Wasted and nowhere to be found. Additionally, this is the first film in what is undoubtedly a hopeful franchise. The origins of Tarzan are so integral to the character I can't help but feel as though the beauty of it was squandered. The story's simplicity is lost as well, convoluted with the unnecessary and ill-fitting Sam Jackson, as well as the oddly intimate cinematography that just didn't work at all.
But most of all, and personally insulting in a profound way, is the squandered casting of Margot Robbie. Off the bat, Margot Robbie (for my money) is the most gorgeous woman I have ever seen. Looks, personality, charisma...she's got it all and I without a doubt saw this film because of her. I'll see anything with her in it. But she's more than just beautiful, she has loads of untapped talent that Scorsese only scraped the surface of with The Wolf of Wall Street. She is given so little to do here, but still manages to shine as the only light in the film. She's spunky, smart and brimming with survivalist charisma. She literally makes something great out of something abysmal. Also, in what is becoming a pattern, she outshines her male costars. Skarsgard is literally nothing more than a chiseled body, while Waltz looks positively bored putting on the same, worn out shtick he generally coats his villainous roles in. Even the aforementioned Sam Jackson, nothing more than an ill-fitting piece of comic relief. Margot Robbie is a star, yes, but she doesn't justify seeing this film. The Legend of Tarzan is an absolutely abysmal effort that somehow is worse than I could have imagined.