Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Jungle Watch: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

In some ways it's a goddamn crime that the version of Tarzan that Millennials grew up with was saddled with Phil Collins music and Rosie O'Donnell's voice blasting like an air-horn throughout.  I recently tried to re-watch the Disney version of Tarzan, and for all the technical achievements of the film, that "let's do things tied entirely to what's popular in the moment", upon reconsideration, makes the film a grating mess.

I guess Gen X may have been the last generation to be given Tarzan to enjoy in steady doses.  I remember watching black and white Tarzan on TV as a kid, and I have to assume it was Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan with Cheeta.  It's also possible we were watching later movies, the 1960's TV series...   Who knows? Tarzan has known a lot of incarnations in film and television, including maybe the version that really informed me most about Tarzan, the 1970's-era cartoon show.

Before the release of 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Marvel put out a Tarzan magazine comic which covered the first half of the first Tarzan novel.

And this was really what informed me as to the more detailed version of Tarzan's origin.

Like a lot of kids, we played "Tarzan", even if I can't really recall what that meant other than climbing whatever we could get a grip on around the yard and imagining we'd made friends and foes of the 10 or so jungle animals we could name.  But being able to talk to monkeys and lions seemed like a pretty good deal to us.  The 70's and 80's were still safely within the 20th Century, and the notion of High Adventure was still very much a marketable commodity at the time, across nearly all genres, and Tarzan was right at the center of that.

I finally watched the original Johnny Weissmuller movie and read the actual Edgar Rice Burroughs novel of Tarzan of the Apes just last year.  The book is a book of its time, as is the movie, and both have their place in history.  While the prose of the novel may be purple and many ideas in the book would now seem dated, the story still holds as an adventure and romance.  And if we're looking for our own cultural DNA, both Tarzan and ERB's John Carter are vital to understanding what was to come with superheroes and superhumans in fiction and popular culture, and - of course - that's now escalated to culture writ large with fifth generation offspring of Burroughs' creations throwing shields in billion dollar movies.

All that to say, I was a bit pre-disposed to want to see a new Tarzan movie, and, yet, I've seen very, very few of them to date.  Not even Greystoke, which I am told again and again is not worth seeing.

The Legend of Tarzan (2016) understands the story of Tarzan remarkably well, but it also is a movie that understands the perspective from which it was written a century ago and the changed values between the first time Tarzan swung from a vine and today.  Acknowledging the widespread atrocities of The Belgian Congo, the movie places Tarzan and his friends headlong against what the producers were sure to be aware would be the major point of contention with any depiction of Europeans in Africa in the 19th Century and early 20th Centuries.  This Tarzan arrives bundled with some of the actual history that took place in Colonial Africa, a revisionist Tarzan, palatable and understandable to modern eyes, retaining the context of the historical period in which Tarzan was originally set but heroism coming from all sides as the characters fight uphill with the instituionalized racist policy and atrocity.

Those new to Tarzan will get up to speed within the movie.  There's some exposition and we get flashes of the origin story of Tarzan (parents die in jungle, saved by a big-hearted she-ape, grows from weak member of tribe to become, of course, Tarzan.  Meets Jane.), those glimpses of Tarzan's childhood remaining surprisingly true to the original tale (all of which is pretty facinating stuff if you'v enot picked up the book).  But this film begins well after Jane and Tarzan have met, married, and returned to England to reclaim the Greystoke family home.  Tarzan has become a penny-book adventure character and a celebrity.

The Belgian Crown has invited Lord Greystoke to the Congo to see the progress being made, but George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is an American investigating the Congo and he's suspicious of King Leopold's claims.  He urges Tarzan to accept the invitation and bring him along so they can get into the Congo to see what's really happening.

Of course, the invitation is a trap set by Belgian fixer Leon Rom (Christopher Waltz), as part of a trade to deliver Tarzan to an old enemy in exchange for access to much needed diamonds to finance the Belgian enterprises in The Congo.

Our Jane is thrilled to return to the place she considers home, and Margot Robbie has all the spunk you want in your Jane Porter without the falsetto voice of Maureen O'Sullivan ringing in your ears.  The movie reimagines Jane's history from sensible daughter of a treasure-hunting, daffy father to the daughter of an educator (seemingly not a missionary, so it's difficult to determine what, exactly, Jane's father was up to, but clearly living in peace alongside a tribe).

As Clayton/ Greystoke/ Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgård is entirely buyable. He's a remarkable physical specimen, of course, and he gives Tarzan a sort of distance from any but his most trusted colleagues and friends, with the watchful eyes of someone who grew up with life threatening danger at every turn and within his own troop. A trusted source mentioned he wanted to see a more confident Tarzan, but it was my feeling that once Tarzan is back in his own home turf and shakes free of the conflict of who is he - a British Lord? A wildman masquerading as a British Lord? Or something more - a Lord of both Jungle and man's world - that he returns to who he was in those penny books.  And, really, it fit well enough with the articulate but quiet Tarzan I saw in my one ERB Tarzan read.

Skarsgård gives his take a lot of physicality, from a somewhat loping gate to hands that never quite unclench from years spent walking on his knuckles.

Tarzan's relationship to animals is framed differently - the perspective that Tarzan can communicate with the animals is translated into less of a "he speaks gorilla" and more to a "he gets how gorillas communicate and behave in their society", a Jane Goodall with astounding abdominal muscles.  And Tarzan's talent for imitating natural sounds is key to his sort of "super powers".

At it's core, Tarzan is a romance between John Clayton III and the American, Jane Porter, and that's something the movie embraces.  As much as ERB called his Barsoom novels "Planetary Romance" in an era that did not yet know the term "science fiction", similarly, ERB writes at least the first Tarzan novel as a romance that's perhaps oddly reflective in a hyperbolic way of how young men struggling with their own romantic foibles may recognize.  While Tarzan may not disguise himself as John Clayton III,  he is no less split between what he knows of himself, of the jungle and what he can do and what he knows of being a man in a civilized world than Kal-El/ Clark Kent/ Superman is split between his roles as alien orphan refugee, reporter for a newspaper and superhero.  Where Lois Lane, traditionally, loved only the man in the cape, Jane loves Tarzan and Lord Greystoke - she's embraced the nobility of a man who is somewhat wretched in many ways.

The movie doesn't shy away from the romance, and makes it one of partnership, of a pair who give each other a tremendous amount.  It's a bit unfortunate that, then, Jane becomes the Damsel in Distress, no matter how much the movie wants to fight the idea and insist that she can hold her own - but it provides a simple motivation for both characters once Jane is absconded with.

The movie is careful to insist upon the agency of not just Jane, but humanizing the villagers with whom Jane has previously lived.  These characters aren't helpless, but outgunned.  They aren't simple characters filled with the superstitions and supernatural tendencies, but portrayed as people who live differently, but also human.  Moreover, the movie makes clear that the cultures of the region are varied, that the tribes are not all one monolithic people - all new territory for an idea as frankly simple as Tarzan.

If they do not delve deeply into showing the very real atrocities of The Belgian Congo - it's still a fantasy movie and still a light action adventure picture.  Jackson's character provides both a moral compass here giving context not to just the impact of colonialism and invading territory in Africa, but the subjugation and horrendous policy regarding Native Americans that was a very recent memory in the U.S.  That those things are acknowledged at all, let alone given a centerpoint of the characters' motivations is remarkable, as so many have steered clear of Tarzan's exit from the jungle and contact with other humans, both African and European, in order to avoid the minefield.

As a Tarzan film, it delivered for me.  Big, jungle adventure.  Giant action sequences.  Swinging on vines.  Jane as a spitfire.  A strange Lord of the Jungle who can commune with the animals.  Tarzan's yell echoing through the trees.  Gorilla fight scenes.  And a real heel of a bad guy who is gonna so get his.

So, yeah, I loved this movie.  That I wound liking it, let alone this much, came as a huge surprise. Maybe the bad reviews and low Rotten Tomatoes score set my expectations lower than they needed to, but I walked out of that movie (sadly, I saw it by myself) pretty jazzed about Tarzan as much as I was when I was six years old.

And I don't know if it was a product of the fact I saw the movie on the Fourth of July at noon or what... but that theater was pretty full, but entirely of people my age and older, well up through people who had to be in their late 70's.  And it kind of tickled me that there were a bunch of grown-ups who were no doubt counted out of the potential for the demographic for this movie who clearly said "they made a new Tarzan movie?  Hell, yes!".

Me and the senior citizens - showing up for Tarzan.


picky said...

I saw a preview for this when we saw X-Men (really not great) and was SUPER excited.

Backstory: When I was a kid, my family moved into a rent house with a fantastic attic room. I was 7, 8 (?) and, as a lover of mysteries, thought it must hold some sort of secret. Lo and behold, I found a secret door built into the paneling and found a really old, tiny copy of Tarzan. I loved it so much.

In 1999, when I was a senior in high school, I worked at Blockbuster, and when Tarzan came out, it played nonstop. I grew to love it, which, when you watch it over and over again, says something. I haven't seen it in ages, but there you go.

So this Tarzan? Have to see it. Thanks for the review!

The League said...

I still haven't seen X-Men, and from everyone's "eehhhhhhhh.... hmmmmmm" reactions, I've now decided to catch it on cable.

That's an amazing story about the attic space with Tarzan hidden away. How odd and amazing! ERB himself would have loved the idea of finding a story hidden in a wall. I sincerely hope you still have it. And now I'll be losing sleep wondering why it had to be hidden away and why it didn't go with the owner.