“The Legend of Tarzan” Movie Review


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     “The Legend of Tarzan” is one of those films which found itself with a number of substantial obstacles to overcome prior to its release as a 4th of July tentpole and expected Summer hit.  It’s likely the current generation of movie goers may not even be familiar with the character, who was created by famed novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912.  Numerous television shows and film adaptations of his work have been produced in the century since then, including the “Tarzan” television series that ran from 1966-1968 that first introduced the character to me at a young age.  Years had passed before the most notable feature film hit silver screens in 1984 with “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes”, which had Christopher Lambert in the title role.  And then Disney took a stab at the material in 1999 with their animated feature “Tarzan” that went on to gross over $171 million dollars at the box office.  Perhaps Warner Bros. felt it was time for a new take on the material, but as the reaction to the film has indicated, we are living in a different world.  

     Director David Yates, who helmed the final four films in the “Harry Potter” series, brings Tarzan to life in the form of Alexander Skarsgard (“Battleship”, “True Blood”) with Margot Robbie at his side as Jane.  Through a series of flashbacks, we learn Tarzan’s birth name is John Clayton and that his parents were killed by apes in the African jungle when he was a newborn baby.  As we know, those same apes raise him to near adulthood, which seems like an unrealistic proposition when you think about it, but we’ll roll with it for the story’s sake.  Those flashback sequences aren’t necessarily important to the story, but you feel as though Yates and his screenwriters, Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, felt they were needed in order to fill in the blanks for those unfamiliar with Tarzan’s roots.

     As John Clayton, our hero is now well entrenched into everyday life in London and married to Jane.  An early scene establishes the fact that Belgian King Leopold has sent soldiers to Africa in order to mine a valuable diamond like rock found deep in the jungle.  When they arrive, the soldiers are overmatched by a tribe whose lands are rich in the highly sought after stones. The tribe, led by Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), tells the leader of Leopold’s men, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) that he will allow the mining of the diamonds if he brings him Tarzan.  Apparently, they have some bad blood between them, enough that this tribe leader would allow the white man on his sacred lands to mine natural resources for profit.  Rom, who seems to be a cookie cutter character shaped exactly like Rene Belloq in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, all the way down to his white suits and fedora and the fact he is working for a higher power but also has his own agenda, sends word to London that King Leopold would like John and Jane to come to Africa to see the progress he has made in the region.

     John accepts and with him comes George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a soldier sent by U.S. President Harris to secretly investigate allegations of slavery being enforced by Leopold’s men in Africa.  Of course, it’s not long before John and Jane, along with George, find out they have been double crossed by Leopold, who is never actually seen in the film but is often referred to by those such as Rom who put his nefarious interests into motion.  John initially escapes the attack and attempted kidnapping, but Rom successfully gets Jane and knows John will soon come for her.  This is where John transforms into the Tarzan character we know, as he elicits the help of the animals in the jungle and various friendly native tribes in order to rescue Jane.  George goes along for the ride too, but functions more as the much needed comic relief than anything else, which is actually important, considering Skarsgard’s John Clayton/Tarzan remains a verbal bore throughout.

     I had mentioned the Rene Belloq character earlier because there happens to be a scene on Rom’s boat in which Jane is brought in for a formal dinner with him in his quarters after being handcuffed to a rail all day.  The scene plays out exactly like the “Raiders” scene all the way down to Jane attempting to steal a knife while playing along with Rom’s hospitable dining charade.  In addition, Yates rips off a memorable shot from “Jurassic Park” and even has a character refer to the dangers of the animals approaching by describing their “3 inch talons”.  The massive use of CGI animals is impressive, but lack the needed impact with the recent “The Jungle Book” and the two outstanding “Planet of the Apes’ films still fresh in our minds.  All of the action in the third act basically comes to a predictable end in which we see a demonstration of the already known power Tarzan possesses over the various animals in the jungle and the paper thin cliche filled plot unfolds in exactly the manner we expect.  That’s not to say it’s a bad film like  “The Lone Ranger” was a few years back, but this curious revival of a character being thrust into such a bland and overused story (Man saves woman who can’t fend for herself + White man leads the oppressed against the white oppressors.) seems to depend solely on the audience being blown away by action set pieces we’ve seen before where the stakes were significantly higher.  More or less, it’s “Avatar” re-written as a period piece.  GRADE: C