Tuesday, July 5, 2016

In Theaters: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by David Yates. Written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Ben Chaplin, Casper Crump, Simon Russell Beale, Matt Cross, Madeleine Worrall. (PG-13, 109 mins)

The latest big-screen incarnation of the legendary Edgar Rice Burroughs character has all of the expected 2016 blockbuster summer tentpole bells-and-whistles--3-D, extensive CGI, motion-capture performances for the apes, post-300 quick cut/slo-mo speed-ramping--but makes a concerted effort to remain faithful to the Tarzan of old whenever possible. The best decision made by screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer and latter-franchise HARRY POTTER director David Yates is to consciously avoid making this yet another origin story. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN takes place in 1890, years after Tarzan and Jane have left the jungle to return to their aristocratic life in London as Mr. and Mrs. John Clayton III. Tarzan's backstory--his parents killed after a shipwreck when he was a baby, his being raised by apes in the deep jungles of the Congo, his meeting American Jane and returning to society--is doled out in periodic flashbacks that take up only the necessary screen time. The film expects the audience to have a working knowledge of Tarzan, which is a pretty bold move considering how major studio marketing usually works and for whom the movie is targeted. It's been 18 years since the last big-screen TARZAN movie--the 1998 bomb TARZAN AND THE LOST CITY, with Casper Van Dien--and over 30 since the 1984 prestige epic GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES with Christopher Lambert and 1981's abominable TARZAN THE APE MAN with Bo Derek and Miles O'Keeffe. Tarzan hasn't been a regular pop culture fixture since the late 1960s. As was the case with last year's pleasantly-surprising THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., I guarantee there are moviegoers today who have no idea who or what Tarzan is.

In this incarnation, Clayton, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) resents being called "Tarzan," even though he's become a popular figure in 1890 London, with his "Ape Man" character the subject of numerous newspaper articles and pulp stories, and "Me Tarzan, you Jane" a fictional catchphrase. He enjoys indulging children who are fascinated by his legend but feels out of place in the aristocracy, having no inclination to journey back to the wild, unlike Jane (Margot Robbie), who dislikes formality and longs for excitement and adventure. Nevertheless--there'd be no movie otherwise--that's exactly where they find themselves headed after the Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) encourages Clayton to visit the African Congo to investigate stories of tribes being enslaved by evildoers in the employ of the never-seen King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold has acquired part of the Congo and is claiming bankruptcy even though the area is rich in diamonds and minerals. Dr. George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson, cashing a paycheck), a visiting American envoy at the behest of President Benjamin Harrison and a veteran of the Civil War, takes a special interest in the slavery aspect of the allegations against Belgium and tags along, much to Tarzan's initial disapproval. The Prime Minister has suggested Tarzan go on his diplomatic mission after receiving an invitation from Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a vintage mustache-twirling villain secretly working for King Leopold. Rom needs access to the diamond mines of Opar, which is overseen by tribal lord Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). Mbonga agrees to allow Rom access to the mines' riches if he hands over Tarzan, who was forced to kill Mbonga's son years earlier.

A lot of plot has to get set in motion before the action really fires up, and for the most part, it's rousing and fun, an enjoyable mix of GREYSTOKE costume epic and old-school jungle adventure. Of course, the weakest element is the dubious CGI work, which is a blurry, incoherent mess when Tarzan is swinging through the trees. Elsewhere, Yates cribs a little too liberally from past blockbusters in a way that often crosses the line from homage to ripoff, whether it's the tiresome speed-ramping or the "circling aerial shot of a band of heroes walking single file along the top of the mountain," which was played out the 247th time Peter Jackson did it in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. Tarzan and Williams being chased by a stampeding flock of ostriches looks a little too much like the gallimimus scene in JURASSIC PARK, and a shot of a gorilla roaring in Williams' face has he turns away in fright is straight out of ALIEN 3. Robbie's Jane is far too present-day snarky at times (you're almost expecting her to vocal-fry "hashtag whatever" at Tarzan), and a throwaway line implying Rom was molested by his priest as a boy has no place in a TARZAN movie, nor does Williams quipping "Do you want me to lick his nuts, too?" when Tarzan tells him to bow before an ape leader. So yeah, there are some big flaws here, but it gets more right than wrong, starting with not overstaying its welcome, clocking in at a perfectly reasonable 109 minutes. Skarsgard is a fine Tarzan, a stoical man of few words and he certainly looks the part, even if his Tarzan yell sounds suspiciously like a guttural death metal remix of Johnny Weissmuller's iconic call. Waltz was obviously hired to be Christoph Waltz, and he relishes every moment of it. He's given a lot more to do here than in his squandered turn as Blofeld in the disappointing SPECTRE, and his performance, coupled with his suit and hat and his steamboat journey upriver, combine to make a nice winking nod to Klaus Kinski in FITZCARRALDO. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is mindless, harmless summer fun (despite the insistence of many critics and bloggers who specialize in professional outrage, tirelessly trying to find things to be offended by), but it isn't giving the Weissmuller or Gordon Scott classics any cause for concern over their place in the TARZAN canon.

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