Saturday, July 9, 2016

"The Legend of Tarzan"

 4 / 5 

After seeing The Legend of Tarzan, I found this review by Emily, which tells you pretty much all you really need to know about the movie.  Judging by the reactions of the audience I sat with on a late Friday-night showing, many people are seeing it for exactly the reason Emily did: Alexander Skarsgård, who spends half of the movie shirtless.  I can imagine worse reasons to see a movie.

Reactions similar to Emily's were rampant when I saw it.  There were some audible gasps when Tarzan took off his shirt.  There were equally audible moans, and not of dissatisfaction, when Tarzan and Jane, played by Margot Robbie, retreated into her bedroom for a little afternoon delight.

I've read stories about how Rudolph Valentino used to cause women to swoon in movies.  Some men, too, I imagine, but back then they would have had to hide their reaction.  As long as I've been going to the movies, swooning hasn't really been a thing, but if enough people see The Legend of Tarzan and have similar responses to Emily and the people in my audience, swooning in movie theaters could well make a comeback.

And it won't be just the women.  We live in an allegedly enlightened society.  Alexander Skarsgård is old and wise enough to know there are men who find his body just as perfectly perfect and unbelievably unbelievable to see the movie because he's in it.  And while watching The Legend of Tarzan, there will be many men who think, if only for a fleeting moment, "What if Professor Porter had had a son instead of a daughter? What if it were, 'Me Tarzan, you James'?"

Ok, maybe there won't be many.  There was me, though.  I thought that.  I thought that even while I watched Tarzan and Jane make love to each other and I felt not a twinge of jealousy, not even a little bit, because I was too busy watching Tarzan and Jane making love -- and if that doesn't tap into some primal instinct that transcends sexual orientation, I don't know what does.

But surely The Legend of Tarzan can't just be some soft-core porn exercise, right?  Didn't Bo Derek do that in the early 1980s?  No, you're right.  It's not.  Not at all.  But it does know and understand its subject matter enough to know that sexuality, that most raw of human natures, is fundamental to the Tarzan stories, whether or not it's front and center.  Jane loves Tarzan, and at least at first, it's not because he's a terrific conversationalist.

Think about the covers of cheap paperbacks and comic books, where Tarzan wearing just a loin cloth and, invariably, Jane is wearing clothing that's stripped and ripped and falling off of her, suggestive of ... well, not a nice, easy, comfortable life, but one that is savage and filled with heat and excitement.

My friend Josh, an avid Tarzan fan and expert, showed me some book covers that match almost perfectly to frames of The Legend of Tarzan.  I said, "But Jane isn't naked in this movie, is she?"  He assured me she is not.  Then I saw the film.  Jane is not naked.  Not technically, at least.  The Legend of Tarzan is rated PG-13.  But, boy, if she could be, she would be -- and it wouldn't seem completely out of place.

Very little is out of place in this Tarzan -- there is the famous Tarzan yell, there is vine swinging, there is a family of great apes, and there are elephants and alligators and hippopotami that can crush an alligator's back with one bite, as Jane explains to an enraptured group of children when she's at Greystoke Manor in England, years after she and Tarzan have returned from the jungle.

She has a strong and persistent urge to return to Africa, where she grew up.  She considers it her home.  John Clayton, as Tarzan is now known, has a more complicated relationship to his upbringing.  He wants to put it behind him, but it has made him a celebrity -- and that celebrity can be used, he is told as the film begins, in England's efforts to prevent King Leopold of Belgium from enslaving the entire Congo.

That's not exactly how the movie starts, it is more complicated than that -- but it isn't.  What it boils down to its that Leopold's emissary, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, an actor who can apparently no longer play good guys), has a handle on a huge deposit of diamonds that sits right under the land a tribe of savage warriors.

Waltz has managed, by proxy, to convince Tarzan/John Clayton, to return to Africa and ensure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.  (The movie neither steps away from nor addresses the ugly undertone that the assumption is any colonial hands are better than leaving it with its native people.)

This all leads to a rousing adventure told by people who clearly have a passion and love for Tarzan and the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The Legend of Tarzan contains the spirit of Tarzan and everything Burroughs thought his creation to be, and it upgrades the action just enough through the endless use of CGI (more about that in amount) to make it look and feel compelling to modern audiences.

John/Tarzan agrees to go, but not before Jane tells him that she's going with him.  He tries to put up a fight, but he learned a long time ago not to try to fight with Jane.  They go to Africa.  The story gets underway.  They find the bad guys and work to defeat them.

And that is the core of the story.  It is, in the end, as simple as any great adventure, with some wonderfully realized characters and situations surrounding the main action.  But it's really quite simple: A bad guy wants to take over and Tarzan has to stop him.

While this version by necessity features some important flashbacks that help us understand who Tarzan is and where he came from, it is not an origin story, which is one of the most refreshing things about it.  The Legend of Tarzan is entirely in the trendy mold of superhero films, and Tarzan himself is as much a superhero as any of them, but it approaches the story with a sense of fun and faithfulness that is so sorely missing from the recent spate of comic adaptations.

This is not a grim, sullen Tarzan.  Despite its less savory moments, it is a joyful movie. You do not grow anxious sensing there will be some sort of test about it on the Internet tomorrow.  You can watch it and stare at Skarsgård (and, yes, Robbie, if you prefer) and tune out a lot of the dialogue, and still enjoy it immensely. Or you can watch closely and ponder many of the complex goals the former "ape man" is trying to solve: An invading army is approaching, and the time has come for different tribes of gorillas and different species of animals to start working together to defeat a common enemy -- an enemy who has convinced a great many people that his money-driven quest is noble.

At a time when race, violence, weapons and words are being used to foment violence among different groups, it's refreshing to see a movie that relies on unity among different people (and animals) to be what saves the day.

But don't take this all to mean that everything about The Legend of Tarzan works.  Margot Robbie, an actor I generally admire quite a lot, looks and sounds (at least at first) too much like a 21st century California beach girl to be entirely convincing; her Jane grew on me, but it took a while.  I'd like to have known a little bit more about Tarzan's transition from jungle to city, and about the perils his parents faced.  Tarzan is filled with a lot of small, blank plot holes that it leaves up to the audience to work out.

And the CG isn't always effective.  It's a shame for a film like this to come so soon after the wholly believable Jungle Book remake, because it attempts too much with CG.  One key scene in which Tarzan and some other characters use vines to swoop onto a speeding train is so over-the-top that it almost harms the movie.

The Legend of Tarzan also suffers at times because the director, David Yates, applies a sort of corporate anonymity to the filmmaking style. It frequently seems less directed than project managed, with a little extra brand management thrown in.  (The on-screen title isn't actually The Legend of Tarzan. It's The Legend of Tarzan®.)

There's also the complex, difficult question of race.  It just can't be ignored.  Does Tarzan even belong in a time that is filled with such racial strife?  Is it wise to depict a story in which white men come to the rescue of black natives?

They are fair questions, and those issues are ones the film doesn't try to tackle.  This is not a revisionist Tarzan, it is Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, updated to fit certain modern sensibilities.  The Congolese people it shows are intelligent, independent and fiercely loyal.  They are complex and interesting characters, certainly much more than the buffoons Tarzan and Jane interact with back at home.

Tarzan is working to defeat colonialism, to rescue hundreds of people captured as slaves, and to ensure a certain independence for the people he knows from what is, in the end, his own native land.  The Legend of Tarzan might not be able to completely convince those who feel Burroughs' vision of a white savior for Africa is entirely out of place in today's world.

But to my mind, the more important question is whether we have a story that instills a sense of joy and hope, of excitement and adventure, of community and purpose.  The Legend of Tarzan has its faults, but is strength of conviction isn't one of them, nor is its ultimate effect:

It's a grand movie.  And Alexander Skarsgård has his shirt off in most of it.

Viewed July 8, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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