It occurred to me recently that it had been a while since the last time I devoted this space to reviewing a new movie. This seems like as good a time as any to rectify this - and frankly I could not have picked a better movie with which to do so.
Full disclosure: The Legend Of Tarzan was one of those movies I was looking forward to with both great anticipation and, at the same time, a certain degree of dread. Anticipation because, as I have written about many times in the past, Tarzan is a character I have loved ever since I was a very young boy; dread because, as a lifelong fan who has read and re-read the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novels many times since the third grade, and has seen every “sound-era” Tarzan movie at least once (and several of the silent Tarzan films besides), I know that Hollywood’s track record when it comes to adapting Burroughs’ jungle hero to the screen has been... well, spotty at best.
I needn’t have worried. Director David Yates - the man behind the last four movies in the Harry Potter series - has given Burroughs fans like myself the Tarzan movie we have been waiting our entire lives to see.
As personified by actor Alexander Skarsgård, this Tarzan - a.k.a. John Clayton, Lord Greystoke - is very much the hero Burroughs first introduced to the world in the October, 1912, issue of The All-Story magazine: a man of two worlds, the product both of his blue-blooded British peerage (he is a member of the House of Lords) and his upbringing as a feral child in the African jungle, possessed of great bravery and a sense of honor that, frankly, we could use a lot more of in 21st century humanity.
Margot Robbie is equally great as Tarzan’s wife, the former Jane Porter, who also comes across far more like the character Burroughs created than has typically been the case in previous movie incarnations. No mere “damsel in distress” (she openly mocks the film’s villain at one point for assuming otherwise), Robbie’s Jane is witty, brave, resourceful - in other words, the perfect match for her beloved jungle lord - and very much the way I envisioned her when reading the original novels so many years ago.
Skarsgård and Robbie get top-notch support from their co-stars. Christoph Waltz (most recently seen as the latest Bond villain in last year’s Spectre) is appropriately evil as Captain Léon Rom, King Leopold’s representative in the Congo and a character very much in the mold of such classic Burroughs villains as Alexis Paulevitch, Nikolas Rokoff and Albert Werper.
And Samuel L. Jackson turns in a fine performance as an actual historical figure, the American George Washington Williams, whose efforts to free Africans enslaved in the Congo by Belgium’s King Leopold provides the film with a fitting real-word connection that remains all too relevant in our modern world.
Besides providing the film’s historical context, Jackson’s character also provides much of the movie’s humor. Although one exchange of dialogue between his character and Tarzan did seem to me to be a little out of place in a Tarzan story (though not, perhaps, in one of Philip José Farmer’s Tarzan pastiches - and now that I think of it, perhaps this scene was the filmmakers’ way of playfully acknowledging Farmer’s contributions to the wider Tarzan mythology), Jackson gets an opportunity several times to poke a little good-natured fun at the way Tarzan has been portrayed by Hollywood in the past.
His “Me Tarzan, You Jane” monologue early in the film should bring smiles to the faces of anyone familiar with the original novels, and brings to mind a similar scene Burroughs himself (who for the most part detested what Hollywood did with his hero) wrote at the conclusion of one his later novels in the series, Tarzan And The Lion Man.
Ironically, a number of the negative reviews I’ve read about this new film seem to have one thing in common: The reviewers are complaining that the portrayal of Tarzan is not in keeping with previous movie versions. (I'm presuming most of them mean the Johnny Weissmuller films of the 1930s and ’40s, since they still seem to be the best known among the general public.) Others seem to buy into the notion that Tarzan is a passé character who for whatever reason needs to fade into obscurity, or accuse Yates of trying to turn Tarzan into a modern-day superhero. The latter accusation is particularly asinine, given that the creation of Tarzan predates that of the comic book superhero by several decades (Tarzan was actually one of the inspirations for Superman; look it up if you don’t believe me.)
Besides, it occurs to me that - given his obvious affection for and fealty to Burroughs’ Tarzan - David Yates would have given us Superman movies far more in keeping with Siegel and Shuster’s original creation than that crap Zack Snyder has foisted upon the world in recent years. But that’s a discussion for another time, I suppose...
This is what I know: members of Burroughs’ own family have stated publicly that this is not only the best Tarzan movie ever made, but also the most accurate cinematic depiction of the character ever and one which Tarzan’s creator would have approved and enjoyed. As a fan of the character and his creator myself, that endorsement carries far more weight than than any of the negative - and often quite ridiculous - comments made by snobby movie critics who have no knowledge of the original source material and in most cases wouldn’t know a good movie in general if it reared up and bit them in the butt.
Ignore the naysayers. If your knowledge of the Tarzan character is based solely on those old Weissmuller films or the 1999 Disney animated feature (all of which admittedly do have a charm all their own, but are NOT true to the original books), you owe it to yourself to see this movie and get to know Lord Greystoke as Burroughs intended.
Granted, even in this film they didn’t get everything right. For some reason filmmakers never seem interested in presenting the lost city of Opar or its inhabitants as Burroughs described them. And Yates follows the inaccurate Hollywood tradition of showing Tarzan’s parents as having lived in a treehouse after being marooned in the jungle. (Burroughs wrote that they built themselves a cabin on the jungle floor, not a treehouse.)
On the other hand, they DID get Jane’s nationality right for a change; Robbie’s Jane is an American just as Burroughs stated, not a British citizen. And they also got right the fact that Tarzan was raised not by gorillas but by a more advanced species of ape known as the Mangani. Little things, perhaps, but they mean a great deal to fans of the original books.
And ultimately such quibbles as Opar and the treehouse are, indeed, minor ones. The Legend Of Tarzan is not only the best Tarzan movie ever made but a great summer film in general, boasting great performances, wonderful cinematography and effects, rousing action-adventure sequences AND an always timely message regarding the treatment of our fellow man.
It is, quite simply, the best movie of the year so far. And anyone who says otherwise are, as the Mangani might say, fee`ta-ze and t`are-eta-ze zor eth b`yat. (Again, look it up.)
Copyright 2016 by John Allen Small
In : Pop Culture
Tags: reviews tarzan edgar rice burroughs