The Legend of Tarzan

by Glenn Erickson Oct 11, 2016


Lord Greystoke is back in Africa righting wrongs, freeing the enslaved, smiting the Belgians and rescuing his blonde damsel in distress. We’ve got more 3-D scenery, irate gorillas and special effects than we can shake a stick at… but do we really have Tarzan?

The Legend of Tarzan 3-D
Warner Home Video
2016 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 110 min. / Video title extension: A New Threat Awaits / Street Date October 11, 2016 / 24.99
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Ben Chaplin, .
Henry Braham
Film Editor Mark Day
Original Music Rupert Gregson-Williams
Written by Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer based on stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Produced by David Barron, Tony Ludwig, Alan Riche, Jerry Weintraub
Directed by David Yates

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Hollywood’s love affair with comic book heroes and classic pulp adventure heroes is more than a little spotty. Yes, the Marvel Universe still has the box office by the short hairs, and a movie starring anybody as Batman has good chances. But Superman has been an iffy proposition, the literal-minded Watchmen wasn’t considered successful, and reboots of older heroes like The Lone Ranger haven’t done well either. Since all of these movies need to be $150 million dollar epics, the heroes sometimes aren’t big enough for their own story vehicles.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character Tarzan was unbreakable in the old days; I doubt that any of the dozens of jungle adventures with Weissmuller, Barker, Scott, Henry, and Ely lost money. Every kid who loves to run and jump can understand a hero who dashes like a deer through the rain forest and swings through the trees on handy vines. Tarzan was actually fairly civilized considering that he was conceived in the midst of colonial-era horrors; and nobody minded that his jungle domains were always in European hands, as long as Tarzan kept the peace by ejecting poachers, Nazis and evil Arabs. And don’t forget those dreaded Panther Cults.

It’s essentially a problem with finding Tarzan’s place in the modern sensibility – he doesn’t really belong here. The basic Tarzan appeal never got better than the second Johnny Weissmuller film Tarzan and His Mate, a pre-Code from 1932. The nude bathing scene was nothing compared to the gleeful carnage and mayhem, with apes tossing screaming natives off of impossibly tall cliffs and gruesome close-ups of corpses covered with ants. Tarzan played rough, bringing a knife to a lion fight. The foolishness, crazy effects, and fake elephant ears were the best part of the glorious back-to-nature fantasy, unrestrained escapism at its best.

Tarzan just didn’t make it through the Vietnam decade. By then it was no longer acceptable to portray Asia as a place of teeming masses where life is cheap, mainly because we helped make it that way. Perceiving of Africa as the Dark Continent populated by primitive natives didn’t work anymore either. The honorable attempt to bring Tarzan into the post-Colonial PC universe in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes was a beautifully made ‘Masterpiece Theater’ epic, starring Christopher Lambert. What was missing was the fun, the energy, the reason we go to a Tarzan movie in the first place.

But the Lambert epic is still better than this year’s The Legend of Tarzan A New Threat Awaits. Arrived on 3-D Blu-ray, it comes off as a real compromise, that sees the need to explain everything in terms of white exploitation, and to make sure that a racial equilibrium is achieved at all levels. And the way this is done is through ‘realism.’ The characters played by Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz are based on real people. The indigenous tribes in this new picture are handsomely idealized: one is a horde of proud warriors and another a perfect little utopia with smiles, sing-alongs and homemade beer.

The story might as well be a James Bond film. Retired to England, Lord John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) chooses to go back to Africa only because American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) warns him that evil Belgians are close to enslaving the entire country for the diamond trade. Williams is the first PC concession — we must have a black character on equal terms with the hero Tarzan — and Jackson gets the job because nobody can do it better. (I bet he was able to name his price, too). Williams must somehow keep up with Tarzan and his black warrior retinue in a race across the Belgian Congo. It’s the best-written role in the movie. Jackson brings it to life without exaggeration, and in a PG-13 universe to boot — not a single ‘motherf—-er’ escapes his lips.

The highly visible new star Margot Robbie is less colorful as Jane, a regulation emancipated and empowered woman who seems an unlikely find in upper crust Britain, even if she had been raised in Africa. She does nothing wrong but the role is thin. She’s the only member of the top cast to interact with Christoph Waltz, who also seems diminished by the limitations of his role. A gloriously flamboyant actor, Waltz wisely downplays everything about his Belgian villain Leon Rom because it’s more or less the only way to do it. It’s pretty tough to make Belgium seem worse than the Nazis but Waltz gives it his best. A conscientious stinker from beginning to end, Rom plots to win the diamond concession of the Cong for his sovereign Leopold back in Brussels by delivering Tarzan to the ferocious Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). Mbonga’s son killed Tarzan’s ape mother, and Tarzan killed the son. It’s all personal, see? In other words, it all boils down to a wrestling match. Do we think that Tarzan can actually make Africa safe for the Africans?

The movie is packed with CGI visuals, CGi animals and CGI action, all of which are attractive and energetic. Still, it’s all just pixels dancing, folks, and the effect is mostly of an animated cartoon that looks like live-action. True, in the old days we had the guilty illusion that we were seeing actors in real danger, that somebody might get hurt. But real people were swinging on long cables. Here we barely believe that anybody’s doing anything. Lord Clayton loses a fight with a big gorilla and suffers a serious wound, which slows him down only so long as it takes to pinch the gash back together with the tenacious jaws of fire ants. Otherwise there’s no attempt at credibility. The fact that Tarzan isn’t invincible means nothing when he routinely jumps off 500-foot cliffs, because there’s always a soft landing in the trees below. In fact, five or six characters do that, and none of them gets as much as a scratch. Try talking to a parachutist about that trick.

Lord Greystoke swings through trees faster than a bird can fly, as if the jungle had been engineered by Six Flags Magic Mountain. He bests twenty armed Belgian troops on a train, and his punch is strong enough to propel a man through the side of a passenger car. There’s no consistency as to what this Tarzan can or cannot do. Sometimes he’s a track & field star with the fighting skills of Toshiro Mifune, and at others as powerful as The Incredible Hulk. Since no rules apply, our interest sinks.

Flashbacks to Tarzan’s back-story – orphaned, raised by apes — are almost identical to those in the Lambert movie. Despite being handsomely achieved, they are dead weight in a story that doesn’t really get going fast enough. The meeting and courtship of John and Jane is a bit better, but I felt no particular romantic magic between them, neither then nor later, when she’s a prisoner on a riverboat and in need of rescue. There’s just no zing; everything is competent but the thrills are missing.

This Tarzan is always John Clayton, running madly while wearing trousers. I guess they couldn’t find a rationale for putting him in a loincloth, as has always been the draw, so they gave him really low-cut trousers. Good actor Alexander Skarsgård just seems to be having a bad weekend in the jungle, always pressing forward, being a manly man and maintaining a cultural sensitivity to both humans and the various jungle animals. The conclusion sees him apparently using his Tarzan- Dr. Doolittle superpowers to create a stampede of every hoofed animal within telepathic earshot. He even gets crocodiles to attack on cue. Why didn’t he just do that on arrival, send out his brainwave animal commands for the expulsion of every white man with a Belgian passport? Or did Tarz baby first have to ‘become one with the jungle?’ His communication powers are not really explained, unless he has birds spreading his instructions for him. I rather liked his scenes earlier in the movie, where he ‘understood’ the gorillas only just enough to avoid being ripped apart, and merely shared a mind-meld with some friendly elephants, just for its own sake. Those elephants are pleasant company, and the movie doesn’t even Dumbo-ize a baby elephant. No ‘cute’ nonsense here.

The script makes two references to the old, ‘Me Tarzan you Jane’ joke, and has its own strangled version of the old Tarzan yodel-yell. That’s as close as the show gets to a sense of humor. Frankly, the biggest critical compliment I read about the movie was for the muscle definition on Alexander Skarsgård’s body. And those abs surely aren’t added in post-production.

What’s missing is the wild man factor. The old Tarzans were a white man’s non-guilty fantasy that everybody loved. He had no law but his own. He was a natural leader, a (sometimes) monosyllabic Mr. Deeds who knew what was right and which bad guys needed to be stepped on by a pachyderm for order to be restored. Weissmuller’s courtship with Jane was fun and exciting because it teased women with a rough & tumble fantasy relationship outside the normal rules. Jane loves her caveman jungle lover because he’s honest and direct, I suppose.

Tarzan doesn’t hold respect in the jungle because he’s a diplomat or an emancipator, but because his physical prowess and animal communication powers intimidate the hell out of the childish savages. It’s only the arrogant white aggressors that think they can put something over on the Loincloth Kid. Tarzan kills stuff right and left. The biggest thrill in his early pictures is when he goes all Popeye on us, cutting loose in a way that’s half-berserk. Even Jane doesn’t know what he’s going to do. The launch signal “Tarzan Go!” or “Tarzan Kill!” will bring any kid back to the basics of action movie fun. The Legend of Tarzan only tells us that No Tarzan is better than a PC Tarzan. The guy doesn’t need to be ‘Dark,’ like Batman, but he does need badly to be dangerous.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray of The Legend of Tarzan 3-D is the expected pristine encoding of the new Tarzan epic, yet another expensive production that enlists the CGI talents of hundreds of workers in the digital entertainment industry. Colors are handsome and the art directors have found ways to make the deep jungle look dark yet colorful — there’s no Lord of the Rings silver-blue wash to turn everything into a day-for night look.

In fact, the visuals are pleasing enough to carry one through the picture — what with the Heart of Darkness– like steamboat, the beautiful mountain scenery, and those deep jungle images given depth with the play of light.

Since so much of the film is a CGI effect or composite, I don’t know if any special 3-D cinematography was done on the set. The movie hasn’t so much of a 3-D feel that one is fully aware of it at all times. It’s there, and often the effects are pleasingly subtle.

The show comes with three promotional featurettes, about the ‘vision’ of this franchise reboot, and the special effects used to create those CGI animals and an entire African environment in London. Frankly, it doesn’t help to see that the ‘real’ component of an amazing scene is limited to one man in front of a green screen. Yet, I feel like a hypocrite complaining about that. After all, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made an entirely artificial Indian mountain on tiny sets in a London studio, and we loved it.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Legend of Tarzan 3-D Blu-ray
Movie: Good – minus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurettes: Tarzan# Reborn; Tarzan and Jane’s# Unfailing Love; Creating the Virtual Jungle; Gabon to the Big Screen, Stop Ivory. Plus analysis ‘Battles and Bare Knuckle Brawls’ featurettes: Train Ambush, Tarzan vs. Akut, Boma Stampede.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: 1 Blu-ray and 1 DVD in keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: October 9, 2016

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Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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