The Legend of Tarzan (2016) Movie Review

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan

The Legend of Tarzan (2016) Movie Review

There's a moment in David Yates' excellent and emotionally resonant Legend of Tarzan when George Washington Williams', played by Samuel L. Jackson, goads civilized Tarzan, played by Alexander Skarsgard, just a little too much. Alexander Skarsgard's Tarzan erupts instantly and spectacularly with a combination of physical force and gut-chilling animal sounds and pins the American to a wall, then growls out the words: "They have my wife, and their families." In this single small moment, Yates and Skarsgard put on display Tarzan's utter commitment to the woman he loves while at the same time same evoking the internal contradiction of a man who in adulthood could pass among society as a aristocratic Englishman, but whose feral upbringing has left him with a volatile beast within that can overwhelm the civilized trappings in an instant. Unlike the filmmakers who have come before him, Yates effectively captures this duality – and in so doing delivers a film that is fresh and appealing to modern sensibilities, yet is faithful to the character of the books in ways that Hollywood has never attempted before. The result is pure pulp poetry with a beating heart. Edgar Rice Burroughs would approve of it, and 21st century audiences will, if they can be lured into theaters to see it, be intrigued and satisfied by it.

Legend of Tarzan begins eight years after Tarzan and Jane (a luminous and effective Margot Robbie) have left Africa to undertake a gentrified life in London, where Tarzan has claimed his birthright of John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke. He is drawn back to Africa at the behest of George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a black American journalist who is based on the historical figure who led the exposure of the crimes of King Leopold II of Belgium. Williams recruits him to assist in Williams' quest to investigate the suspected crimes of King Leopold. Accompanied by Jane, the two men return to Africa where Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) has laid a trap for Tarzan that, if successful, will result in Rom delivering Tarzan to Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who seeks to deliver vengeance to Tarzan for killing Mbonga's son many years earlier. Mayhem and adventure ensues.

When Edgar Rice Burroughs was firing on all cylinders, his pulpy, emotionally infused adventure novels were able to strike a mythic vein that caused him to become the J.K. Rowlings of his day – the first global superstar pop culture author, translated into 57 languages, his books and characters embedded in cultures from Russia to Turkey and Japan. At the time of his death in 1950 he was the best known author on the planet with his works selling more than the combined sales of his contemporaries Hemingway, Faulkner, and Joyce. Hollywood tried more than fifty times and although the movies obviously met with success — not one of them ever captured what the grand old pulp master had created on the page. Yates is the first to do it; his Legend of Tarzan stands head and shoulders above the Tarzan movies that came before it–and regardless of how it fares in the crowded summer theatrical marketplace, it is assured of a place in cinema history as the Tarzan movie that captured the heart and spirit of Burroughs' creation.

It remains to be seen how 2016 audiences react. Has Tarzan's time on the world stage passed, or is there indeed something mythic and archetypal that can cause the character to come alive in the modern imaginations? Yates and his team have given it an extraordinary "best shot" and have created something of heart, beauty, and lasting value. The editing of the film by Mark Day is taut and streamlined –not a moment is wasted and the story drives forward with energy and commitment; Henry Braham's cinematography is cool and brooding in London, and lush and earthy in Africa; the production design by Stuart Craig is grand and evocative; and the music by Rupert Gregson Williams is both emotional and pulse-quickening. Special mention goes to screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer who updated the Burroughs material, giving it unexpected historical gravitas, while excavating from the pages of the early Tarzan books the core values that made them unique. And the CGI wizardry is seamless, photo-realistic, and effective on all levels.

FLASHBACK: 1998… Having tracked the project from pre-production to final release, and with all the excitement and anticipation I'd built up for the film, I entered a dark theater in Little Rock, AR completely jacked UP to see "Tarzan And The Lost City". It was the Saturday noon matinée, first weekend of the release. Having read the original novels as a youth, I was looking so forward to the movie that would do justice for a modern audience regarding the character I grew up loving, dispelling all the silly pop-cultural stereotypes and giving him a proper and fitting introduction. I got the best seat in the house that day, but for the wrong reason as I looked around and realized I was the only one in the room. Optimistically, I later joked with friends that I'd gotten a "private screening" of the film. A few years later, I ended up launching my Tarzan fansite, TARZAN.CC, utilizing many graphics pilfered from the "Tarzan and the Lost City" website to emulate the look. It was my tribute to the film. And I soon began that journey of excitement and anticipation yet again for the new rumored Warner Bros. Tarzan project. I'd love to chronicle that adventure here, but it would distract from this review so I'll sum it up by recognizing the names of the fallen on that journey: Director John August, Director Guillermo del Toro and Screenwriter John Collee, Director Stephen Sommers… I finally lost hope that the film would ever come to fruition.

And then, a few years beyond a decade later, Warner Bros. were basically told to get their act together or lose their option on the project. And they stepped up to the challenge in spades with "THE LEGEND OF TARZAN".

Just last Tuesday, I was privileged to attend a private early screening with the film's producers, members of the Edgar Rice Burroughs family, several very esteemed persons tightly connected to the Tarzan universe in film, print, art, and fandom, plus a few friends I brought along to see how they received it.

On all fronts, "The Legend of Tarzan" was a KNOCK OUT OF THE PARK!!! A state of the art theater on the studio's own lot packed to the brim with eager fans; once again, the BEST seat in the house (depending on your tolerance). I was 2nd row center, with a HUGE screen in front of me and the killer audio rattling me to the bones.

The reaction to the film was UNANIMOUS as we applauded straight through the final credits. Finally, a studio who put the money necessary into producing the RIGHT film. Finally, a screenwriter and director who cared enough about the source material to fight hard for their vision of the film, and get the right actors for the job. And FINALLY… a film worthy of the original character of Tarzan from Edgar Rice Burroughs' original novels, with all his power, fearlessness, and without hesitation toward action against insurmountable challenges.

See this film expecting to see a fitting representation of real heroism driven by love, dedication, and absolute resolve. This generation has been sorely deprived of these types of positive, character-inspiring role models as marketing peeps have instead perfected the profitable art of catering to and nurturing our more dangerous, self-destructive instincts and childlike demands for instant gratification… and our society has unarguably become weaker for it. It's time for a whole new generation to rediscover their primal drive to love and protect their own, fight for their place in this world, and establish their individuality as leaders instead of followers. This is the film we've been WAITING for, and I'm encouraging people to drop their concepts and preconceptions, see the film, and learn from it. This is an ERB novel realized on screen, a true pulp adventure beautifully brought to life with dramatic excellence, and for new folks it might require the ability to step outside their familiar world for a moment to appreciate. If it doesn't quite grab you the first time through, a second viewing is highly recommended.

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