Doesn’t Monkey Around
By Michael S. Goldberger
David Yates, director of several “Harry Potter” films, does a respectable job of both preserving and translating for contemporary tastes “The Legend of Tarzan.” Although a tad methodical, its highminded social conscience, solid acting performances and scintillating integration of special effects make up for its occasionally slow pace. Alexander Skarsgård, handsome, built to rumble and adept at varying grimaces, is a fine King of the Jungle…an extraordinary presence who can illustriously switch from human to ape mode whenever the survival instinct deems necessary.
This latest permutation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s literary hero can glide through the trees with the best of his predecessors. But while the film astutely pays tribute to the movie myth from which it emanates without self-consciously emulating catchphrases or traditional conventions, the substantial action is fashioned in service of the story, and not to please the currently popular trend of violence for its own sake. It remains to be seen if folks not particularly enamored of the legend will become converts.
The thing is, Mr. Yates’s “Tarzan” is about as serious as a motion picture fable can get. This is a green Tarzan. When we see rolling coal cars full up with ivory tusks harvested by the tale’s scurrilous profiteers, we shudder. This is a human rights Tarzan. Abashed by the hardly covert slavery depicted in the Belgian Congo, Victorian, white supremacist notions are challenged by a proper muckrake. And it is an introspective Tarzan. Imperfect and self-admittedly so, John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, is the living metaphor of conflicted behavior.
But though commendable, I can’t help feel there’s one element missing. It’s probably the kid in me. I know Yates wanted to keep the film from slipping into any semblance of campiness, and doubtless the absent party might have thrown a monkey wrench into his noble efforts. But I wish he could have figured out a way to slip in Cheeta without compromising the production’s integrity. I’d like to think the famed chimp would be good if you explained the situation and limited him to three or four monkeyshines and pranks, but I’m probably just fooling myself.
Truth is, and not necessarily to make you feel better, my dear Cheeta, the screenplay by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer is a bit deficient in the comedy relief department. Walking a cautious tightrope to protect its admirably righteous concerns, any levity inserted to keep matters from going into dirge mode is subtly achieved by acknowledging the humor inherent in the everyday hypocrisies, curiosities and idiosyncratic comportment of Homo sapiens. Sure, it’s nowhere near as funny as a barrel of your species, but it’s the best they could do without monkeying around.
Still, whether irony or my inexcusable reluctance to let go of the pun, it bears informing that it is among the villain’s desires to exploit and make a monkey out of Tarzan. Inspired by one of history’s many shameful episodes of man’s inhumanity to man, this specific example of cruelty is represented by Christoph Waltz’s Leon Rom, scalawag, opportunist and psychopathic point man for Belgium’s King Leopold II. Mr. Waltz, again successfully smearing the screen with his very own brand of vitriol, supplies the perfect evil foil to our albeit imperfect Tarzan.
Yup, this isn’t your flawlessly innocent nature boy. Indeed, he has a symbiotic connection to the flora and fauna of Darkest Africa, and probably hugs a tree better than any Audubon devotee. Nonetheless, he’s got baggage…some of it human, some savage. Keeping those often disparate elements in balance is his cross to bear, compounded in its difficulty by treacherous adversaries seeking to find his vulnerability within the dichotomy. The nefarious Rom sums it up thusly after capturing pretty Margot Robbie’s Jane: “He is Tarzan. You are Jane. He will come for you.”
All that cerebral stuff noted, it behooves to exclaim, ‘Boy, can this guy swing a mean vine.’ Anyone witnessing the prototypal straphanger’s glorious hurl through the rainforest and who doesn’t wish to do the same is in the wrong theater. Part of its energy is in the vicarious thrill, its pure instinctiveness. Think about it: no telemarketers ringing your brain off the hook; no long-winded duplicities insulting your intelligence. Just you, Tarzan, soaring in pursuit of your innate freedom.
All of which is why we hate this sadistic Rom, a party pooper extraordinaire driven by his greedy king’s desire to squeeze Africa for all its wealth, no matter what atrocities it takes. Although Tarzan may have his own internal issues regarding right and wrong, the plot suffers from no such quandary. Tarzan good, enslaving, imperialistic government, bad! Featuring plenty of derring-do and an erudite virtuousness you hope won’t fall on indifferent minds, “The Legend of Tarzan” is solid entertainment, even if folks missing the chimp feel a bit Cheeta’d.
“The Legend of Tarzan,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. release directed by David Yates and stars Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie and Christoph Waltz. Running time 110 minutes