Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic creation Tarzan is swinging his way to the big screen this weekend for the first time since Disney's animated adaptation in 1999. The Legend of Tarzan, starring True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård in the title role, mark's the character's first live-action appearance since 1998's woeful Tarzan and the Lost City.
While Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) remains for me the definitive cinematic exploration of the jungle lord's animal upbringing and eventual humanization, the new movie has much to recommend it. Skarsgård definitely brings a suitable physique and physicality to the role, even if he doesn't exhibit much range in his facial expressions. The film is stunningly shot by up and coming cinematographer Henry Braham (Guardians of the Galaxy) and boasts exquisite sets by Oscar-winner Stuart Craig (who previously, similarly designed Greystoke). Director David Yates, who helmed the last four films in the Harry Potter series, confidently orchestrates the drama as well as the movie's impressive action sequences.
As the story begins, Tarzan has married his longtime love, Jane (Margot Robbie), and assumed his entitled position in London's Parliament as John Clayton, Lord of Greystoke Manor. It isn't long, though, before he is lured back to his former home in the Congo to serve a seemingly political purpose that turns out out to be a conspiracy involving both a vengeance-minded tribal chieftain (played by Djimon Hounsou) and the evil envoy (Christoph Waltz in his latest villain role) of Belgium's greedy King Leopold. When Jane is taken prisoner, Tarzan recruits both his human and animal friends as well as George Washington Williams, a real-life US representative played by Samuel L. Jackson, to take their now-shared enemies down.
There is considerably more history and fact-based political intrigue in The Legend of Tarzan than in most previous iterations of the ape man's story. As a result, kids will likely continue to prefer the Disney version. But for adults, Yates & Company's film is the most ethnically, culturally and ecologically respectful depiction of the character to date.
During a press conference I attended last weekend in which Yates, Skarsgård, Robbie, Hounsou and Jackson all participated (Waltz was disappointingly unable to attend), they all spoke of how this more historically-accurate and mature approach appealed to them. Yates spoke of how he was drawn to the screenplay's "sexual, sensual" take on Burroughs' stories, which is understandable after directing four youth-oriented Harry Potter movies in a row. Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Hustle & Flow's Craig Brewer co-wrote the script.
Skarsgård handled inevitable questions about why he didn't wear Tarzan's traditional loincloth more with humor and aplomb. "I begged David for months to let me wear the loincloth," he joked. Skarsgård wears trousers of the time, though perhaps a bit more form-fitting, throughout the movie but does don a loincloth ("more of a sarong," Skarsgård calls it) for the film's final scene. No stranger to nudity as illustrated by True Blood, Skarsgård still shows plenty of skin in The Legend of Tarzan. He is fleetingly nude during flashbacks to his early, ape-reared jungle years.
Robbie makes the most beautiful and resourceful big-screen Jane ever (sorry, Maureen O'Sullivan and Bo Derek) but her performance struck me as too contemporary. She charmingly shared during the press conference that, due to her youth, Disney's Tarzan served as her primary previous exposure to the characters. The screenplay doesn't help her in this regard, most notably during a bizarre exchange she has with Waltz's villainous yet devoutly-Catholic Leon Rom that alludes to the 21st-century scandal resulting from the sexual abuse of children by priests. Rom's employment of a killer rosary also gives the film a distasteful, unnecessary anti-Catholic feel.
The inclusion of George Washington Williams is the film's most novel element yet also proves to be its most unexpectedly poignant. In one scene, the character recounts the mistreatment black men and women just one generation earlier than him suffered as slaves but concludes it was little compared to the suffering inflicted on Native Americans. Jackson spoke in depth about the research he did into Williams' life, of which he knew little before receiving The Legend of Tarzan script. The actor also joked about how he, unlike Skarsgård, had to "get in shape" for his role by gaining 20 pounds after he had lost considerable weight filming Tim Burton's upcoming Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
Even if doesn't ultimately rank among the very best Tarzan movies made to date (of which there are over 100), the ape man's latest adventure provides more food for thought than the typical summer blockbuster in addition to the requisite action and spectacular special effects.
Reverend's Rating: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.