Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan
David Yates swings from action to romance with athletic grace in latest screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s chest-beating bodice-ripper
The Legend of Tarzan
Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou
Directed by: David Yates
Running time: 1hr 49 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
With Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz sharing the screen, The Legend of Tarzan was halfway to Tarantino-Land before it even left the tree.
Yet, by the time this new take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s jungle boy lands athletically on the ground, any hint of knuckle-dragging, monosyllables or lowbrow sensibility has been rooted out, replaced by something rather refined and far more romantic.
Yes, romantic. Straddling the throbbing force of the Victorian libido, director David Yates clearly understood the seminal attraction to the Tarzan myth.
Burroughs brought two different worlds together between the sheets of his classic story of an English lord orphaned as an infant and raised by a family of giant apes. He took the carnal sweat of Africa and rubbed it against the khaki leg of the colonial mentality, suggesting to his readers that civilization is state of mind – not genetic destiny.
Take it one step further and Tarzan looks like an early salvo in the fight for civil rights: The story of a white man raised by apes and returned to civilization, only to see the civilized world as inherently unjust and inhumane.
Tarzan, or Viscount Greystoke John Clayton, is essentially the first superhero. He’s got an alter ego, he can swing on vines, and he can summon other animals to help in times of need.
More to the point, he’s got a body rippling with defined muscle fiber, and director David Yates puts his bare chest front and centre — sans Spandex — in this latest intersection of Hollywood and vine.
Lead swinger Alexander Skarsgård is up the challenge of beating his rock hard pecs every so often. But every Tarzan trope — from the primal holler to “Me Tarzan, you Jane” – is revised with just enough cheek and context to make it work without once touching on irony, and that’s where Yates really flexes his particular package.
The man with a wardrobe full full of Harry Potter movies knows you have to sell suspension of disbelief with sincerity. Characters can be extreme, but they have to feel human at the same time. As a result, even with Jackson and Waltz in the picture exchanging their trademark smirks, the traces of Tarantino disappear under David Yates’s generous, compassionate hand. He captures our inner child without pandering and achieves a romantic must: sincerity without dreariness.
Skarsgård and co-star Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, Z for Zacharia) have no problem conjuring chemistry, and Yates successfully balances this fantastic intimacy against a far less romantic worldview.
It’s the tail end of the 19th century and slavery lingers on as colonial empires begin to crumble. John Clayton is very much a part of that world when we meet him at the top of the reel, living like a lord, looking like a tailor’s window.
We wouldn’t even know he’s Tarzan until a group of schoolchildren ask him if his mother was a monkey. Yates offers flashbacks to play out scenes of Tarzan lore we already know, from his wild child beginnings to his love of Jane, but this Tarzan movie begins in the world of man.
John has no desire to resume his life in a loincloth until he’s persuaded by the American emissary (Jackson) to accept an invitation to the Belgian Congo, where the morally bankrupt representative of the king (Waltz) plans on capturing Tarzan and delivering him to a tribal chief in exchange for diamonds.
The plot is always just believable enough to keep us aboard, and even when it isn’t, it’s usually justified by some mind-blowing visuals. Yates lets us swing through the vines and plummet off cliffs, and when he focuses on the handful of battle scenes, he borrows more from kung fu movies and Wild Kingdom than Hollywood’s back lot.
After all, we have to feel Tarzan is human. And even with those rippling abs and glutes, Skarsgard registers as flesh and blood. So, for that matter, do the computer-enhanced primates, who provide an interesting reflection of our natural selves — before our minds were colonized by greed.
Yates clearly understands every level, but he doesn’t sacrifice the matinee charm for any grandiose message. The Legend of Tarzan works as both an action movie and a fine romance, with just enough self-referential one-liners to give us a gentle wink when we need it.
Even Jane gets a spunky makeover. Robbie plays co-star in a dress, not damsel in distress, ensuring the romantic threads never fray and the love story remains central to the larger plot. Kids may not like all the mushy stuff, but mom will. More importantly, if any movie is going to chart the distance between ‘civilized man’ and ‘the animal within,’ you can’t just use language and clothing as the yardsticks. Love is the only metric for humanity, and this Tarzan measures up on every score.
THE EX-PRESS, July 1, 2016