Thursday, June 30, 2016

Trying to make Tarzan relevant

Nothing legendary about the latest look at the King of the Apes.

Filmmakers tackling a Tarzan movie face a variety of problems -- not the least of which are the racial attitudes that tinge Edgar Rice Burroughs' hopelessly dated fantasy.

Obviously aware of such pitfalls, director David Yates tries to cleanse The Legend of Tarzan of offensive elements, putting an anti-colonial spin on a movie that becomes a kind of CGI zoo. What, you thought they'd be using real apes?

For all the digital effort, Yates, who directed the final four Harry Potter movies, can't entirely liberate The Legend of Tarzan from Hollywood imperialism. He's still dealing with a story in which the white Lord Greystoke, a.k.a. John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), leaves the comforts of Great Britain with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) to rediscover his animal self and save Congolese tribesmen from being enslaved by Belgian mercenaries.

You needn't look past Christoph Waltz's name in the credits to know who's playing the bad guy. Waltz's Leon Rom makes deals with a fierce chief (Djimon Hounsou), captures Jane and generally makes it clear that he's indifferent to all forms of African life.

Waltz, who has been menacing innocent lives since his breakthrough in Inglourious Basterds, may not seem particularly enthusiastic about his jungle-bound villainy, but at least he's well dressed.

Rom wears a white suit and tie in even the most remote locations. He carries a rosary that he uses to strangle people. A less-than-wry comment about possible connections between Christianity and the exploitation of Africa's abundant resources?

Then there's George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American Civil War veteran who wants Tarzan to accompany him to Africa to see whether Africans really are being enslaved. If they are, Tarzan can expose this crime to the world. Who, after all, wouldn't believe Tarzan, a man with impeccable jungle cred?

Yates also offers flashback to Tarzan's youth. After his widowed father is beaten to death by apes, baby Tarzan is snatched by the same apes, one of whom raises him with motherly affection.

As the adult Tarzan -- bare chested and in britches rather than loincloths -- the Ape Man swings through trees, leaps off cliffs, and fights the apes who thinks he deserted them.

I haven't said much about Skarsgard's Tarzan because he isn't exactly loaded with personality. Tarzan's hands are swollen and a bit deformed because he spent much of his youth running on all fours. He knows how to speak to animals and regards them as friends.

Still best know for playing a vampire in HBO's True Blood, Skarsgard mostly displays his abs and looks noble.

As for Jackson? He has seen better days, and, I hope, better hairpieces.

Robbie's character takes no guff, but this Americanized Jane seems like another product of authorial engineering, one more strained attempt to accommodate contemporary sensibilities.

It takes more than an hour for Tarzan to deliver his trademark yell, and this rumble in the jungle may not fool audiences who've seen too many digitally created animals to suspend much disbelief.

Legend of Tarzan doesn't exactly die on the vines that Tarzan uses to swing from tree-to-tree, but did the world need another Tarzan movie? If so, it should have been one that didn't make the mistake of delivering its most exciting moments in the short prologue that precedes the rest of the movie.

No comments: