THE LEGEND OF TARZAN
☆☆☆1/2 out of ☆☆☆☆☆
For those who don't know, I am a lifelong fan of the Tarzan character. In fact, I am drawn to all the mythical "feral man" archetypes including Tarzan, Ka-Zar, Mowgli, and others. The thing about Tarzan is that much like the Frankenstein Monster and Dracula, most people have a rather simplistic and distorted view of the character influenced by film and tv bastardizations that bear very little similarity in depth with the original literary version. Perhaps we might call the novel version the "prime" version?
I also have to add that other than the 80s film GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES starring future Highlander, Christopher Lambert, pretty much every Tarzan movie is close to unwatchable after the age of 8. The primary reason for it, in my opinion, is that the filmmakers usually have no desire to translate the character from the novels to the big screen -- they want to just churn out some cheap jungle action with a stuntman running around in a loin cloth, or in John Derek's TARZAN, THE APE MAN, make some jungle-based soft porn starring your wife.
So, does THE LEGEND OF TARZAN break the mold and give us a Tarzan for our times? For the most part, the answer is yes. It's not a perfect film, but it is a good movie and it is entertaining throughout (altho a couple of slow spots in the middle). The best thing about the movie is Alexander Skarsgård who absolutely nails the role of Tarzan/John Clayton every moment he's on screen (minus the forced hug at the end). He's giving it his all internalizing the beast within as a John Clayton who has turned his back on the jungle to assume his role as England's Earl of Greystoke. The motivation for he and his wife, Jane, staking out a new life in England is John's grief over the loss of their child. It's a solid motivation and the stoic Lord Greystoke can't help but show his pain through his eyes. Skarsgård gets it. He is physically everything the Tarzan of the novels describes tall and athletic. He is brooding but charismatic; cunning and clever; driven and intense; and always in conflict between his human nature and ape nurture.
This film, for the first time (at least that I can recall) makes the effort to bring out from the novels the fact that the apes that raised Tarzan are not normal apes. They are the Mangani. They are much more intelligent, organized, and violent than normal gorillas. This film incorporates the famous jewels of the hidden ancient city of Opar. (I'm told that this was mentioned in that awful Caspar Van Diem TARZAN movie from the '90s, but I've apparently blocked out those details.) I thoroughly enjoyed the backstory flashbacks giving Tarzan's origin story and establishing the conflict with his ape father but also the camaraderie between Tarzan and his ape brother -- whose signal of brotherly affection is a slight bump with the back of his hand, which is used effectively for both humor and drama.
Really I cannot find anything to criticize about Skarsgård's performance. I know I came away from this film very glad that he did not get cast as Thor because it very likely would've prevented him from taking on this role as a 19th century super-hero. Lord Greystoke is a man of few words but all of his actions have impact and meaning, even if it is just a nod of his head or a bend of a finger. So, what the filmmakers have done is surround him with people who talk....a lot. The exposition and dialogue that the lead character might usually be informing the audience with is put into the mouths of those surrounding him. His wife, the American Jane Porter, is played by Margot Robbie and she has quite the mouth on her. She's feisty and sassy but also compassionate and strong. She was so strong that it actually bothered me that she was forced into the damsel in distress role for nearly the entire film. I would've liked to have seen her partnering with Tarzan more equally. The character, George Washington Williams, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is based on a real person but is saddled with a motormouth of bad dialogue. As I mentioned, I understand the need for someone to drive the story's dialogue since Tarzan is mostly silent, but man...I wish they could've written it stronger. His manner of speaking was anachronistic and more of the modern annoying American tourist type of dialogue. Christoph Walz was...well...the same bad guy he's been for the last 25 movies he's been in. I love the guy, but I want the casting directors to start challenging him with something more different than whether his character has facial hair or not.
The storyline is also a bit preachy and involves a slavery storyline as well as ripping a little from the real world with King Leopold of Belgium attempting to win a real-life game of RISK over possession of the African Congo. It really does turn into a super-hero movie by the huge climax where Tarzan is basically Land-Aquaman but I loved it. It was a silly romp and very satisfying. I definitely hope it does a brisk business this weekend because I'd love to see Skarsgård's Tarzan in another adventure.