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‘THE LEGEND OF TARZAN’ SWINGS

As popcorn movies go, The Legend of Tarzan is pretty good. It certainly has a well-cast leading man: Alexander Skarsgård may not be a typical macho screen personality but he looks great and, though low-key, is both likable and believable as the Lord of the Jungle. The equally attractive Margot Robbie hasn’t much to do but also fares well as an assertive Jane Porter.

In this politically correct rehash of the Edgar Rice Burroughs story, there is even an African-American hero, played with brio by Samuel L. Jackson. (This is not at all outlandish, as I first thought: there actually was an African-American named John Lewis Waller who served as U.S. Consul (Ambassador) to Madagascar from 1891 to 1894.)

Robbie-Jackson

(Photo by Jonathan Olley – Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

I wish the filmmakers had cast someone other than Christoph Waltz as the bad guy. He’s good, as one would expect, but it would have been much more interesting to go outside the realm of typecasting for this role.

The story delves into history, with Lord Greystoke (aka Tarzan) being urged to return to Africa in order to see, first-hand, what King Leopold of Belgium is up to in the Congo. It seems he has gone bankrupt while conducting suspicious maneuvers involving a diamond mine. Tarzan doesn’t look forward to revisiting his homeland but changes his tune when he is reunited with old friends, from the human and animal world.

Unfortunately, the weakest part of this film is the climax, where the use of CGI is all-too-evident and nothing at all is believable; literally or visually. (There are ships docked in the harbor that wouldn’t have passed muster with old-school matte painters sixty years ago.)

Even the serial-like escape of our hero (oops—spoiler alert, but not really) makes little sense.

But for most of the going, The Legend of Tarzan is a surprisingly palatable Saturday-matinee-type film that soft-pedals violence and eliminates sex from the menu, unless you count passionate kisses. Screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer and director David Yates clearly had a mandate to make this movie family-friendly. Leading lady Robbie wears a Mother Hubbard dress that shows less skin than Maureen O’Sullivan ever did when she starred opposite Johnny Weissmuller in their Tarzan movies of the 1930s and ‘40s.

My biggest gripe with this mostly entertaining film is its wimpy, half-hearted version of the famous Tarzan yell. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

7 comments

  1. Norm says:

    Edgar Rice Burroughs imaginative characters were well struck 100 years ago simply because of the simplicity of the times. Visceral and literally down to earth the Tarzan lept off the screen. The previews make the gorillas more interesting than the lead actor. It seems the story line should have included them in more depth. I’ll wait for the DVD simply because of the “B” nature of he film. Too bad, every 20 years they resurrect Tarzan only to find him more diminished,,,

  2. Say, here’s a novel idea: Perhaps the reviewer should take the time to familiarize himself with the original source materials – the actual Edgar Rice Burroughs novels – instead of lamely comparing this movie to “previous incarnations” in movies that were nothing like what ERB wrote (Miles O’Keefe? really?) or making inane comparisons to (of all characters) Aquaman. I have yet to see the movie myself yet (I have tickets for Saturday), but this is what I do know: the family of Edgar Rice Burroughs has gone on record as saying this movie is closer to what ERB wrote than any that have come before. Personally I put a great deal more stock in that reaction than in a review written by someone who apparently has never read any of the books. (By the way, that “full-throated yodel” you mentioned – a product of Hollywood, NOT the original books.)

  3. David Dale says:

    I have not seen the movie, and thus do not know the exact year it is set. However, by the 1890’s there is a chance that America would have an African-American ambassador. For example,President McKinley (1897-1901) was a strong abolitionist, and did court African American votes by meeting with African Americans before his election, the first President to hold such a meeting. Therefore, I do not think it would be as far fetched as you state to have an African-American ambassador to an African Nation at that time.

  4. Aaron Jones says:

    In viewing the Tarzan movie, I too wondered if the moviemakers weren’t exceeding their grasp via the George Washington Williams character portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson. I thought it was an awkward thing, giving us this Black American character who’d distinguished himself in battle, was awarded an ambassadorship, and had his own reasons for accompanying the Earl of Greystoke to the Congo. But some research into the actual person unearths a fascinating real-life person who, indeed deserves his own movie.

    The filmmakers in this version though have Williams serve as too much comic relief for a character who sees the events through the eyes of what is to represent a contemporary Black American view of events.

  5. Matthew says:

    Presumably by now someone has told Mr Maltin that George Washington Williams really was an African American politician, who really did go to the Congo and express his utter dismay at what he saw.

    But this is a movie based on the biggest pulp fiction title of all time, why is it that if a bigger director’s name is under the title, this sort of revisionist history gets something of a free pass?

    Having said that, I must thank Leonard for the positive review, because I went to see the movie yesterday, and left it feeling somewhat bewildered by all the bad press it’s been getting. Maybe it plays better when you live in a country whose headlines aren’t dominated conflict?

  6. mike schlesinger says:

    Finally got around to this and was incredibly dismayed. Apart from an English Lord in 1890 bearing modern facial stubble and a body like Mr. Universe, there was no excuse for such modern expressions as “stinking rich,” “give up his name” and the family-friendly “lick his nuts.” Feh.

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