Legend of Tarzan: Yates’ Modernist Version of the Ape Man’s Origin–or the Beauty of Alexander Skarsgard’s Torso and Abs

the_legend_of_tarzan_posterFor months, I have been trying to ignore, or disregard the negative word of mouth generated by the trailer and marketing of Warner’s big-budget epic, The Legend of Tarzan, sort of giving the potential summer movie a chance to play on its own merits.

Warner did not show the film to critics until late last week, and the official review date is today, June 30, just hours before the picture opens later tonight. That’s also a bad sign that the studio does not have confidence in its product (probably a result of early test screenings).
David Yates is a reliable British director, who made some of the best and most commercial Harry Potter films (the last four), and so there was reason to believe that he could find a new take of the old myth and bring it to life on the big screen via state of the art digital effects for a younger generation of filmgoers.  On paper, the casting of the handsome hunk, Alexander Skarsgard in the titular role, and the sexy Margot Robbie as Jane sounded good, too.

One insurmountable problem is the audiences’ familiarity of Tarzan as a super hero, be it from the 1930s franchise, starring Johnny Weissmuller and Margaret O’Sullivan (Mia Farrow’s mother), or from a more recent version, the 1984 Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, directed by Hugh Hudson and starring Christopher Lambert and Andy McDowell.

the_legend_of_tarzan_2_skarsgard_robbieA student of mine claims to be an exert of Tarzan his literary and mythological origins and its numerous screen versions—estimated to be over 100 since the sound era. That student informs me that there have also been serious books and dissertations about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Ape Man” and his previous filmic incarnations.

Our grade: C (* out of *****)

Regrettably, Yates movie is a mostly verbose, rarely witty, and seldom thrilling enterprise.  It aspires to its purported status as a modern epic only in goal, trying to pass as a legit origin story as well as a compelling sequel, and in liberal ideology—reflecting the mores of our times, it’s more racially aware in its revisionist historical perspective. (Which often makes the dialogue sound anachronistic….).

the_legend_of_tarzan_12_jacksonI’m concerned that this Tarzan will fall in between the cracks and will satisfy no one group in particular. On the one hand, there is not enough dramatic or thrilling action sequences, and on the other, the special effects are on par with the high standards established by Disney in such movies as The Jungle Book, which overall offered a much better entertainment.

 

If you look carefully, even the small-size photos in my review show how poorly looking the CGI effects are and how badly integrated they are into the composition of the frame.  Indeed, the CGI in a major action scene toward the end, which depicts the apes’ invasion, is particularly disappointing due to its fake look, considering the that film’s budget is rumored to be about $180 million.

the_legend_of_tarzan_3_skarsgard

With all due respect to reportedly detail and accurace, Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer’s script takes too long a time to get Tarzan back to Africa and its jungles, where the mythic hero belongs. The core audience–young viewer and children—have always been more interested in the gorilla family that raised Tarzan and his interaction with them than in the mature gentleman that he later became.

And admittedly, the first sight of Skarsgard, stripped to his waist and revealing admirable abs (a combined result of strict diet and extensive gym work) should offer his fans visual pleasure—up to a point.

To be fair, there are some brief action-oriented flashbacks that chronicle Tarzan’s formative years in the wilderness, wearing the iconic loincloth. But the first part of the movie is heavily reliant on dialogues and the sights of the elegantly dressed man, who has now assumed the identity of John Clayton III, fifth earl of Greystoke and member of the House of Lords.

In his version, Yates has attempted to give a more serious, mature, sensitive, liberal, and psychologically complex Tarzan—not an easy task considering the kind of Super-Hero he is even in Burroughs’ writing. Under his direction, Skarsgård plays Clayton as a privileged upper class man still haunted by his parents’ deaths, which who compels him to help and protect others.

the_legend_of_tarzan_4_waltzThere are also mistakes in the casting, I think. At this juncture of his career, the notion of Christoph Waltz as yet another smart villain is not a novelty anymore (You may recall that he has won two Supporting Oscars for playing suave sociopaths in Tarantino’s pictures). In this film, Waltz’s Captain Leon Rom provides the final reason to lure Tarzan back to the to the Congo, where Rom plans to deliver him to vengeful tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) in exchange for the diamonds of Opar.

the_legend_of_tarzan_12_jacksonSamuel L. Jackson elevates the saga in playing a factual historical figure, George Washington Williams, a veteran of the Civil War who suspects that Belgian king Leopold II may be enslaving the natives of his colony in the Congo. Having fought to help abolish slavery in the U.S., Williams enlists the help of Tarzan to restore order in the region. (Director Yates aid in a recent interview that Jackson’s character deserves a movie of his own to tell his side of the story).

Here and there, the film makes a nod to more modernist ideology about how the corrupt and greedy White Civilization has abused and exploited the natives of the Dark Continent, and it must be said that in this respect Yates’ picture is not as pompous and pretentious as Hugh Hudson’s Greystoke; The Legend of Tarzan.

What’s most disappointing about this Tarzan is that the director who understood so well the basic appeal (and core audience of the Harry Potter franchise, of which he made the second half of four films, doesn’t seem to understand the seductive lure of Tarzan as a hero, and why he has endured as a mythic figure for almost as long the history of the cinema medium itself. Tarzan is not about ideology or politics, of Congo and other African regions; he’s about the joy and the fantasy of living outdoors, in harmony with Nature.

the_legend_of_tarzan_10_robbieMargot Robbie is an actress of great charm and sex-appeal, but with the exception of a few humorous lines (some unintentionally so), she is not given much to say or to do, even if she easily steals away some scenes from her partner.  It also doesn’t help that the chemistry between Skarsgard and Robbie is decent but not great (and lacking fireworks, this Tarzan cannot serve as a date movie either.
In previous versions, Tarzan was embodied by some non-professional actors, such as bodybuilder Miles O’Keeffe and Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel.  It was always a role that relied on the performer’s physique and physical setting rather than the cerebral play of ideas.  Johnny Weissmuller in the 1930s film series was an actor of limited ability and range (to say the least), and Christopher Lambert in the 1984 was only passably better. (I read somewhere that, at one point, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was in talks to play Tarzan, before Skarsgard was cast).

the_legend_of_tarzan_1_skarsgardAs he proved in True Blood and other projects (Lars von Trier’s Melancholia), Skarsgard is not only a likable performer but one who can act. But here the director and his writers fail to come with an interesting arch for their central character, resulting in a vapid and vacuous performance.  They filmmakers seem to be content in exploiting Skarsgard’s newly refurbished extraordinary physique, letting their cameras glide adoringly over its gym-conditioned torso and abs, which look with a certain light as if they were sculpted of white marble, instead of concentrating on how Tarzan evolves as a personality, torn between two vastly different cultures, or how he actually interacts with his allied animals and the other human characters.