Movie Review: “The Legend of Tarzan” is the original “Planet of the (digital) Apes”

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The Ape Man goes into the “Heart of Darkness” in this generation’s version of “The Legend of Tarzan.” Which is an interesting place to park a story and a character fraught with the potential for racist/imperialist undertones from the moment Edgar Rice Burroughs conceived him.

So while we still get the man raised by gorillas, we still get the “talks to the animals” stuff, the vine-swinging and the famous yell, this version of the legend is politically correct, as well as the usual patronizing and preposterous.

He fights animals without killing them. He is beloved by Africa and almost all the Africans we meet. And he saves the continent from a European menace.

We meet Lord Greystoke in London, where he’s lived with wife Jane (Margot Robbie) for years. He still has his jungle heritage, and the knuckles and hands of a man who grew up running on all-fours. He’s needed back in Africa. King Leopold of Belgium has closed off the Congo to the world and is committing unspeakable atrocities in the name of harvesting the riches (ivory, minerals) there.

“I’ve already seen Africa,” Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) complains. “And it’s hot.”

But an American envoy and Civil War survivor (Samuel L. Jackson) convinces the once-and-future Tarzan to join him for a fact-finding mission. Jane is most enthusiastic of all, even though she’s not invited.

King Leopold’s Henchman in Africa, played by Christoph Waltz (of course), is determined to snatch the legendary Tarzan and deliver him to an ancient enemy (Djimon Hounsou). And if he has to snatch Jane to get to Tarzan, so be it.

It’s a seriously old-fashioned jungle action picture, with white colonials brutally mistreating simple natives, a long journey up river (both borrowed from Joseph Conrad) and jungle creatures fought, understood and summoned like the cavalry in every B-Western in movie history. Flashbacks tells us the over-familiar story of how Tarzan came to be raised by apes, and how he met Jane.

Harry Potter assembly line veteran David Yates shot this in the muted (3D) colors of memory and old movies. The result is a dreamy, other-worldly picture, but one that even in scenes that capture a bit of Africa, looks fake.

Digital ostriches, digital gorillas, digital lions, digital hippos and digital crocodiles make the movie practical and safe for cast and crew. But they never look real.

Bringing in Craig Brewer (“Blacksnake Moan,” “Hustle & Flow”) to co-write the script gives the movie a little cover from tumbling into attitudes easily regarded as racist today. But the effect tends to neuter Tarzan. He can’t have a fight with an African and admit he has a genuine beef with the guy.

Skarsgard makes for a lithe and limber Ape Man. He makes you wait for him to take off his shirt. Even shirtless, he’s entirely too bland to make much of an impact.

Jackson treats his comic sidekick role as if he’s in a PG-13 rated Tarantino movie — sarcasm, anachronistic wisecracks, self-consciously cool with a lot of gunplay and a little profanity.  He has fun and he does his damnedest to animate the movie.

Robbie is a modern liberated American woman with runway experience shoved into a tale of 19th century Jungle Love.

The result is a “Legend” that feels inoffensively modern, or at least less offensive than it could have been.

It’s too violent to be the kids’ movie it wants to be. And it isn’t up to the challenge of giving adult audiences something meatier to chew on, despite the novel Belgian Congo genocide backdrop.

You can’t make a bold statement or exciting action picture when every frame is filled with fear — of offending someone, of upsetting animal rights activists, of giving the audience a Tarzan they won’t recognize, of failure.

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MPAA Rating:PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue

Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou
Credits: Directed by David Yates, script by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:49

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3 Responses to Movie Review: “The Legend of Tarzan” is the original “Planet of the (digital) Apes”

  1. DanD says:

    If you liked the trailer, you’ll love the movie!! Trust audience ratings, and not biases of cynical professional “critics” like this one. Most negative reviews criticize the film as non-PC acceptable, this one says it is too PC compliant. Yates can’t win. The CGI is great, same company as The Jungle Book effects, not fake at all, the best animal CGI ever. Anyway, this movie is about a story, a good script, and fine acting, not CGI eye candy. The hero is no more “patronizing and preposterous” than all the DC and Marvel action heroes, and much more realistic. To those who loved the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, the prior films fell short. I read my collection of 24 Tarzan novels many times as a youngster. The challenge for movie makers has always been the character changes, developing so much over the series of books, making a daunting task to convey Tarzan’s complexities in a 2 hour film. With a 32 year span since the last effort to bring a live action, not animated, Tarzan into film, the need to appeal to lovers of the novels, and to explain the story to next generations, presented a major challenge. Yates has effectively pursued both objectives. If you would like to see an effort to realistically enable the Tarzan of the novel series come to life in a movie, you will not be disappointed. The CGI tech enables the nearly superhuman, yet still vulnerable, Tarzan to emerge in a non-animation feature film. To those who complain about EBR’s racism or the character, this Tarzan and Jane are highly respectful of African blacks, as they become examples of courage also. This is an exciting, action hero film of a classic tale. With a sequel unlikely, due to negative critics, The Legend of Tarzan is the best movie representation of the genuine Tarzan from the novel series. And that is quite an accomplishment. Try it in IMAX 3D. Impressive!

  2. James Hay says:

    The original Tarzan novels were fun, mildly satirical fantasy books. The hook was the jungle…and the tooth-and-claw amorality of the jungle. The 2016 film is a Great White Father fantasy, stuffed with political correctness to hide the fact of what it is.

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