Film review: Talented stars get lost in the jungle in The Legend of Tarzan

True Blood star Alexander Skarsgård is the latest actor to swing through the jungle, taking the title role in director David Yates’s The Legend of Tarzan.

Alexander Skarsgård, left, and Samuel L Jackson in The Legend of Tarzan. AP Photo
Powered by automated translation

The Legend of Tarzan

Director: David Yates

Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L Jackson

Two stars

It’s been more than 100 years since Edgar Rice Burroughs’s ape-man first appeared in print, during which time he as been portrayed dozens of times on the big screen.

True Blood star Alexander Skarsgård is the latest actor to swing through the jungle, taking the title role in Harry Potter director David Yates's The Legend of Tarzan.

But in the internet-era, when “vine” means something completely different than it did in Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan heyday, you have to ask whether the jungle hero is really what audiences want now. Smartly, the film dispenses with an origin story. There are a few brief flashbacks to Tarzan’s time in the jungle, when he was raised by apes after his parents died, but the real story starts several years later, in Victorian England.

Tarzan is now John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke. He is married to Jane (Margot Robbie) and drinks tea with the prime minister (played by Jim Broadbent), who asks him to return to the Congo at the invitation of Belgium’s King Leopold II.

After much needling from George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), an American who believes the Belgians are enslaving the Congolese, Clayton agrees to go – but soon falls foul of Leopold’s envoy, Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has struck a deal with an African tribal leader (Djimon Hounsou) to hand over Tarzan in exchange for enough diamonds to save his near-bankrupt country.

To be fair to the perfectly sculpted Skarsgård, he truly looks the part and embodies the character’s earthy masculinity and primal heroism. Robbie is good, too, more than just a helpless heroine.

Coming so soon after his villainous turn in the Bond movie Spectre, Waltz is less impressive, bringing little added depth to an admittedly thinly sketched character.

The real problem, however, lies not in the performances, but the production values. It was shot on a studio backlot (stitched together with background images of Gabon in Africa), and so there is an overwhelming sense that this jungle doesn’t feel real.

True, when Skarsgård first arrives on the savannah and reintroduces himself to a lioness, the CGI animals look fantastic. But too often, the digital technology lets the film down.

Maybe it’s churlish to be so harsh about what is, after all, a jungle fantasy. But with such a surfeit CGI, the film is more hollow than heroic.

It leaves you feeling sorry for Skarsgård, after all the dieting and exercise, to be stuck in such a flabby blockbuster.