Thursday, January 18, 2018
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Review: 'The Legend of Tarzan' will leave you feeling Cheetah'd

Him Tarzan, me disappointed. Could things turn out any other way for The Legend of Tarzan? The lord of the jungle is a century-old superhero as invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and an early template for Hollywood's insensitive racial and gender representations. Not to mention the occasional animal cruelty.

Filmmakers simply can't make Tarzan like they used to. If someone tries, like director David Yates did with The Legend of Tarzan, he's just another superhero, swinging on vines rather than spider webs. Natives can't be restless. Lions won't be wrestled.

Tarzan fans leave feeling Cheetah'd.

These issues could easily be overcome, if Alexander Skarsgard were allowed to bare his teeth and spill some true blood. This isn't a take-charge Tarzan commanding respect and wildlife; he's an elephant whisperer with downcast eyes. Skarsgard's charisma rests entirely in his sculpted abdomen, which doesn't register since his Tarzan stays dressed most of the time. (No loincloth, sorry.)

The plot is far too busy for summer movie pleasure, crowding out ideas that could've been entertaining. Belgium's king wants sacred diamonds from the Congo in 1898, and England is assisting. Tarzan is the ape man in the middle, familiar with the jungle territory and a Parliament member as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke. He'll negotiate.

Ah, but this is merely a way for Belgian schemer Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to deliver Tarzan to King Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who wants him killed for reasons we'll get around to. There are also abandonment issues with Tarzan's ape half-brother, plus the obligatory origins material, although thoughtfully scattered throughout.

Then there's Jane (Margot Robbie), who certainly isn't a damsel in distress but isn't much else. Jane and Tarzan are married, and she insists upon joining his journey home, eventually falling into Rom's clutches. But not before being seduced by Tarzan's mimicked mating calls into a little oh-ee-oh-ee-oh.

Let's also mention Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams, a U.S. emissary tagging along with Tarzan to ensure Congolese citizens aren't being enslaved. Of course they are, bringing out George's marksman skills. (A lot of people are gunned down in this movie.)

See The Legend of Tarzan if you must, then consider what could've been done differently with these characters. Why don't we get a scene of Congo natives interacting with George, curious about a black man of obvious means in 1898? Certainly Waltz deserves a role written more dastardly. We could also use an early scene in London, of Tarzan's instincts being kept in check. Skarsgard keeps him tame too long.

If you have sexy stars like Skarsgard and Robbie, give them a memorable vine-swinging sequence like Lois Lane and Superman (as long as you're imitating other movies). Or here's a novel idea: Make Tarzan dependant upon Jane for a change. A preceding trailer for Suicide Squad shows Robbie is ready for action.

Yates manages a couple of impressive animal stampedes; ostriches for comic effect and an CGI jungle menagerie for thrills. Tarzan's brawl with his ape half-brother makes good use of Planet of the Apes motion capture technology. Again, the best parts of The Legend of Tarzan are transparently sourced from somewhere else.

Then again, Burroughs long ago created the enduring fantasy of superhuman abilities fighting for right in surroundings that stir imagination. He's Tarzan, we're grateful, and disappointed this movie didn't turn out better.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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