The Legend of Tarzan: A Review

Posted: 08/15/2016 in Uncategorized

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Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic tale of the Lord of the Jungle who becomes an actual Lord of a manor, Lord Greystoke is brought to the big screen by David Yates, known for his run at the Harry Potter series. How does this film fare compared to its nearly countless predecessors – I think very well. This is unquestionably a big screen movie. CGI or not, the scenes in which Lord John Clayton III aka Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) interacts with his animal friends are spectacular. Solid performances, a beautiful landscape and a straightforward narrative make this run exceedingly watchable.

As Lord Greystoke, John Clayton III, Skarsgard presents a somewhat dour presence in England. His casting is perfect as he is so much taller than everyone else. He towers over his staff and peers and his sense of isolation  and lack of comfort in this fettered society is obvious. A scene in which his wife Lady Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) is telling stories to children is made grim by one of the little girls asking him if his mother was a gorilla. This question is asked with absolute innocence but it hits his mark, when he answers “of course not, my mother was Alice Clayton (Genevieve O’Reilly)”. A later sequence in which he describes his bone structure as different citing how he was raised in the jungle which might jar young minds is softened with his saying he climbs the curtains up and down throughout his castle. His inability to relate is ably illustrated in this scene. There is an invitation to return to Africa, from the British Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) to represent his country’s interests which he gamely refuses. With his scenes with Jane, there is a softening of the character as we learn she has recently suffered a miscarriage and he expresses his concern. With Robbie the scenes are limited dialogue wise as the notion of him as a primal being is reinforced. She is his opposite, pleasant, open, but make no mistake both are well met. The chemistry between the two is undeniable.

This is Robbie’s year. She is in a host of films and with good reason. Her portrayal of Jane presents a capable, intelligent and compassionate character easily his equal. Her interactions in Africa upon their return are organic, effortless. One can easily buy the scene in which the chieftain Muviro (Yule Masiteng) declares her his “American daughter”. Tarzan’s interactions with the King and his people are easily bought as well from the onset – with the King noting, “you look funny, John”, seeing him in his Clayton apparel. There is no questioning that the accoutrements of Lord Greystoke are not for Tarzan. His natural ease and lighter demeanor upon his return to his true home, even after a ten year absence, are readily conveyed by Skarsgard. I read one critic commenting that “people of the time didn’t look like that” regarding Skarsgard incredibly muscled frame. This is just puerile. One can argue that no one looked like Robbie’s Jane either. It’s a moot point. In physical roles, we have come to expect a paragon of excellence and this is what we get.

Samuel L. Jackson (who may be in nearly every movie this year) plays George Washington Williams, a veteran of the civil war and “entrepreneur”. He essentially goads John/Tarzan into going home citing the possibility of Belgium’s attempted conquest of the Congolese people and reactivation of slavery. John is overprotective of Jane, but a scene with the two on a tree limb leaves her power over him in no doubt.  Jackson has fun with his roles, and that translates exceedingly well on the big screen. He is far from past his prime as his four star performance in Kingsman ably recently illustrated. Even with this supporting role, he brings layers – namely a portrayal of a survivor of a war and regretful “man who has done some bad things” as well as a humanist observing man’s inhumanity to man. All scenes with him and Tarzan work as Williams’ flair and zest bring out a bit of needed levity in the Lord of the Jungle. There is some revisionism here. There is the fear of racism that cannot really be overcome as essentially a white man is coming in to save black natives from an ever present threat. Yates ably navigates the concept written over a century ago as best he can, providing the notion that Tarzan is not infallible or a paragon Jungle Spirit. His battle with his “brother “, Acoote, shows him as all too human, earning his uttering “that was decisive” after losing in combat. His reliance on the Congolese as allies and necessary support to battling an imminent military incursion is far more inclusive than any version of Tarzan thus far without belaboring the point.

While the animals in the film are CGI, Tarzan’s interactions with them up to and including the denouement/final act elevate them to more. His interactions with the lions,  and of course his Gorilla family, stand out as such. The sub-arc of the hatred from Chief Mbonga (Djimon Honsou) works in that it facilitates the master villain of the piece, Captain Leon Rom’s (Christoph Waltz), master stroke of obtaining finances for his bankrupt nation and defeating the legendary Tarzan in one fell swoop. He is a bit of a trope and Waltz has been playing bad guys for a bit overlong. The disturbing promise he brought forth in playing Hans Landa in “Inglorious Basterds” has diminished somewhat. His turn in the last Bond  Run “Specter” was a bit of a return to form, but with Rom he brings nothing new even with his special lethal “beads”. His interactions with Jane are a watered down version of his scene with Diane Kruger in I.B. There is unquestionably menace but we also know this is a PG-13 Tarzan movie.

The expected Tarzan call is slightly undermined by never actually seeing him produce it, but this is probably for dramatic effect, allowing a dissociated, primal sound issuing from the jungle as he swings to meet his enemy. Casper Crump as Captain Kerchover brought nothing new, simply another scenery chewing, leering performance buttressed with requisite racial epithets. “The Legend of Tarzan” did not reinvent the wheel, nor did it overwrite a particularly nasty time in history as regards other nations’ attempts to divide and conquer this proud nation. The performances, imagery and ultimate message however are well presented in a two hour bit of escapism. The notion of Africa as healing and fertile is given voice in an end sequence featuring Tarzan and Jane. If this is the last Tarzan movie ever made, it is a great send off and one worth the price of admission.  “Legend” is very much worth your time if not completely outstanding.

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