Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Movie Review: "The Legend of Tarzan" (2016)

© Warner Brothers

The most appropriate sequel to a film that was never made. Then I remember that, of course it was, like a hundred times. With that, a true origin for this new Tarzan wasn't necessary, because what? Were you born under a rock? Yet something else happened, in this world of Zach Snyders and J.J. Abrams'... We weren't forced to endure some unnecessary, offensive re-imagining that made these beloved turn-of-the-century characters unrecognizable. Rather, The Legend of Tarzan from director David Yates (of the Harry Potter series' later films) is as straight-forward and clean a telling as you could imagine. On top of that? It is rife with pearl-clutching romance. And I couldn't disagree more with the critics about this one.

John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) has been living in peace in Victorian England with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), for the past ten years, having left behind his life in Africa, where he was known by another name: Tarzan. When King Leopold of Belgium's control of the mineral-rich Congo is threatened, he sends his malicious envoy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), to gain access to a mountain full of diamonds controlled by a vengeful Chief (Djimon Hounsou)—and Rom's passage can only be paid by delivering Tarzan, the King of the Apes, to the tribe. Unaware of this plot, John travels with Jane and an American soldier, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), to the Congo in search of evidence that local men are being unjustly enslaved—but when Jane's life is threatened, John must shed his lordly visage and embrace the animal inside that he'd tried so desperately to suppress.

The plot is uncomplicated and the motivations are crystal clear. Everyone has their own agendas, but nothing keeps the story from moving forward. This is an action/adventure cinema lesson in not getting sidetracked. Rather than "starting at the beginning," the film begins long after the origins of Tarzan, only giving us tastes of his upbringing among the animals sprinkled strategically throughout the film. John's introduction as a Lord is contradictory to our expectations, and it allows for an exciting build to his transformation back into Tarzan of the jungle. He is a man in control, but he is also driven by instinct, and the combination is unnerving to watch. At one point, Rom speaks with unexpected honesty to Jane, "Your husband's wildness disturbs me more than I can easily express." There is fear in him, but also jealousy, and even more subtly, arousal; it's a kind of envy he can't quite understand, but we understand it. Watching John become Tarzan is thrilling, in more ways than one. And Leon Rom feels it, too.

Skarsgård may have been an uninspired choice for the role of Tarzan, but it was without question the right one. It isn't a stretch for him, considering the years he spent on "True Blood" sniffing out blood like a sexy animal beast. But those are his obvious, out-of-the-box strengths. As Tarzan, his weaknesses also wind up landing in the 'plus' column. The underlying Swedish accent, normally a hurdle for him to overcome, adds to the slightly awkward spoken English that you'd expect someone raised by apes to develop.

On the other side, Margot Robbie's American English is never quite right, but her classic beauty is reminiscent of Old Hollywood—she's confident and strong, but perversely aware of her vulnerability in this aggressive world. She relies on Tarzan, which may not feel all that progressive, but for a movie like this with characters like these, it shouldn't. Visually and emotionally, she's complete perfection as Jane. And together, they'll give anyone the vapors.

In true summer movie fashion, the action is also impressive. It's simultaneously consistent and varied— the topography changes may have been occasionally dizzying, but the cinematography was soaring, though like many films intended for 3D, there are obvious trick-shots that are lost on 2D audiences, and even borderline silly. The supporting cast was wonderful, albeit lacking in dimension (Hounsou is never bad, but he wasn't given much here). Even with all the familiar faces, it didn't feel like desperate stunt casting. This is the movie that The Jungle Book failed miserably to be. The cherry on top, the piece that tied the entire epic together, was the score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, particularly is sequences featuring vocals by Zoe Mthiyane. Parts of the composition were Gladiator good. From me, there isn't much higher praise.

Personally, I think that Yates' Tarzan screams for repeat viewings. I enjoyed it in the way that I did 1999's The Mummy, where something just keeps drawing me back. There are excusable imperfections that do nothing to inhibit the enjoyability of the movie overall. Even with the occasionally weak dialogue or rough CGI, the performances are strong and the sexual tension is exhilarating—it's simply a bonus that the story is familiar enough to avoid the weight of loaded exposition, allowing a more mature (though simple) plot to flesh itself out. A summer feast for the eyes and ears, just let the spirit of the jungle wash over you and enjoy the rest.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

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