Friday, July 1, 2016

Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan

We finally have a Tarzan movie that is worthy of the author who created the character, and it only took Hollywood 98 years to get it right. Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd would not have been my first choice and the previews certainly made me question the producer's casting call but he not only played the role with perfection, but for a younger generation that never grew up with Johnny Weissmuller, he may be the spitting image of Tarzan as Burroughs described him on the printed page.

In an era where movie making is influenced by product placement and the Chinese secretly own Hollywood (no joke, click here:, it is nice to see a modern-day take on a franchise set in 1890 Africa that also doubles as a period piece. It is a proven fact that more than half of the budget for today's Hollywood blockbusters are paid for in advance through product placement. Period pieces are more expensive to produce and limit the possibility of product placement. This is the main reason why Westerns remain profitable but too often discarded before production. The same could be said for the Tarzan franchise. Keeping in mind that I never embraced the Tarzan movies -- probably because the jungle setting places limitations on story potentials -- The Legend of Tarzan was enjoyable and I hope a sequel gets made. But the answer to that question will rely on the bottom line. I have no doubt Tarzan will generate more revenue during opening weekend than the horrible Independence Day sequel, but I am uncertain as to the profit margin.

Also appreciated was the fact that the origin story for John Clayton III, a.k.a. Lord Greystoke, a.k.a. Tarzan, was represented through minor flashbacks. Of recent, this has become the norm for movie franchises because we all know the origin story and wasting half a movie retelling what we already know is like watching Peter Pan on stage for the ninth time. It doesn't matter if the scenery, costumes and actors are different... it's the same story. Rather, this retelling lives up to the title. The "legend" was in print in London, respected by all who read the stories, children who asked for minor demonstrations, and a man who is torn to choose between two different worlds. Should he return to Africa and revert back to savagery or should he remain in London and live a life his parents wanted him to aspire?

When Leon Rom (played by Christoph Waltz) maps out a plan to enslave all of the Congo and mine the Diamonds of Opar, he strikes an arrangement with Chief Mbonga, Tarzan's old foe. Deliver Tarzan to the Chief and Rom can have all the diamonds he wants. The reason for Chief Mbonga's vengeance is a backstory revealed through flashbacks and a scene involving hand-to-hand combat. Waltz is a great actor with a personality fit for the camera. He attempts to break typecast by playing the role by expressing no emotion throughout the entire movie -- until the final conflict -- but sadly, Waltz is still Waltz on screen. He can chew his lines and steal a scene but someone other than Waltz should have played the heavy.

Margot Robbie, who is soon to become Hollywood's most sought-after pretty face (especially after Suicide Squad later this summer), proves that she can act and her quick rise in Hollywood is the result of hard work, understanding what the director asks of her, and like Enid Markey, the screen's first Jane (back in 1918) can express emotion with her facial expressions. When Tarzan's infamous yell through the jungles serves as a message that he survived a hair-raising ordeal, Robbie did not have to say a word to express her uplift.

Having recently watched the live action Jungle Book, I have to express disappointment in the computer effects used in Tarzan to mimic the jungle animals. At times, such as the scene with the butterfly, they appeared cartoonish. Whether the butterfly landed on Robbie's shoulder in a closeup or flies away in a long shot, the insect was obviously the same size on screen throughout. And Samuel L. Jackson as the anachronistic role of Crusoe's man Friday was certainly not helping what was obviously meant to offer a politically correct take for today's generation -- much like Jane's independent spirit through the entire endeavor. Jackson served merely as an eyewitness to the "legend" that unfolded before his eyes and cutting out a couple of his scenes involving dialog would have provided a more serious take on a man who respected the law of the jungle.

As I was leaving, someone outside the movie theater remarked how they enjoyed this "reboot" and I was tempted to inform them that The Legend of Tarzan is not a reboot. To clarify, a reboot is a movie that differs from the previously existing canon in a significant way, offering a new take on an origin firmly established. A reboot originated in the world of comics where an entirely new take on a familiar theme was established through another artist conception. The origin story was the same. It was the manner of which the story unfolded that differed. But whether you want to classify this as a remake or a reboot will be your call.

The generation that grew up with Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan will find this rendition just as pleasing. Vine swinging? Check. The "me Tarzan, you Jane" reference included? Check. Lord of the Jungle fighting gorillas and loving elephants? Check. Weissmuller and the studios heads at MGM and RKO may have interpreted Tarzan as pidgin-speaking noble savage, but it was producer Sy Weintraub who produced a series of Tarzan movies that closely followed the printed page with a Tarzan who spoke grammatical English, was well-educated and familiar with two worlds of both white men and black natives. Mike Henry's take was influenced by the James Bond craze. In his 1981 rendition, John Derek focused the camera on his scantly-clad wife more than the title character. Disney animators interpreted Tarzan as a California surfer who glided across the trees, sporting a tan. I for one have been waiting for the day Hollywood produced a gritty, bleeding-from-bullet-wounds, self-stitching, occasionally short-tempered, breaking a lion's jaw rendition of Tarzan. He doesn't break the mighty jaws of a lion in this movie, but The Legend of Tarzan is as good as it will ever get.