‘The Legend of Tarzan’
David Yates
Stars: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Well, at least it’s not another origin story. “The Legend of Tarzan” is mainly notable for what it’s not, namely another lugubrious, lumbering introduction, this one about the why of its ripped vine-swinger with an aversion to clothes that aren’t a tattered loincloth. Instead it’s just a random adventure, clocking in under two hours, that throws us into what could be the fourth or fifth entry in a series. Absurd price tag aside, it almost plays like the many throwaway entries that popped up from the ’20s through the ’60s, starring the square-jawed he-man likes of Olympian Johnny Weismuller, Gordon Scott or Lex Barker (and later Christopher Lambert, in 1984’s not bad actual origin story “Greystoke”).

And yet there’s the rub: Who in 2016 remembers Tarzan except as a vague concept? Like the Lone Ranger, he’s a cultural commodity that’s been trampled by history, largely absent from the modern screen. (His last prominent appearance was in a 1999 Disney toon most remembered for scoring Phil Collins an Oscar.) He’s one figure who might need a splashy introduction, hipping us to his start as an aristo child born in the jungle, orphaned and raised by people dressed as apes.

Reviving him is a fool’s errand, and “The Legend of Tarzan” buckles under the strain while trying to gift us with a rip-roaring romp. Ostensibly it’s a revisionist reboot, starting after Tarzan — aka John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, played by the massively tall Alexander Skarsgard — has left the thickets of the Congo to assume his role in stuffy English society. He’s lured back through a painfully convoluted international ruse, at which point he’s quick to shed his moneyed duds, bro back down with his old CGI animal friends (and frenemies) and rescue his beloved Jane (Margot Robbie) once she’s captured by a hissable Belgian baddie (Christoph Waltz).

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There’s man-ape smackdowns, CGI-enabled vine swinging and even some blinding pyrotechnics. But we’re rarely allowed to sit back and munch on our popcorn. Every time “Tarzan” gets into a groove, viewers are hurled back into an awkwardly timed flashback to fill them in on the backstory they may not have Googled beforehand. And the thrills aren’t that thrilling to begin with. Ironically David Yates, who handled the back half of the “Harry Potter”s, is best at the one thing “Tarzan” won’t do: character development, backstory, drama, etc. He’s insufficient at what he’s mostly tasked with doing, which is action. He can’t even give us money shots of Skarsgard, a talented actor mostly performing with his six-pack, cavorting between trees. The set pieces look like bland video game cutscenes, but there’s nothing to cut back to.

Stuttering through a slight adventure it keeps interrupting, it bogs itself down further by tackling an old text that’s easily tagged as “problematic.” Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels teem with casual old school racism, and the very idea is wobbly: an imperialist fantasy in which the king of the African wilds, the lord of the apes is a strapping white guy.

And so “Tarzan” struggles to fix a dodgy source. Robbie’s Jane isn’t a babe with a thing for monosyllabic studs but a proto-feminist firecracker — who still spends much of the movie as a damsel in distress (and still has a thing for monosyllabic studs, which is understandable once he doffs his shirt). Samuel L. Jackson, as real-life race pioneer George Washington Williams, scampers about with Tarzan — but he’s there as a black sidekick. (Though, being Sam Jackson, he asserts himself, murdering lines like, “Snake’s good meat. I ain’t eating no damn ant.”) The plot involves the busting of a European slave trade, but it’s no more than a backdrop. To make a woke “Tarzan” might involve making something that’s not “Tarzan.” Or having a budget well under $180 million. 

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge