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Thursday, June 30, 2016 12:04 am

Yates’ Tarzan a rousing, moving success

Alexander Skarsgard as Tarzan in The Legend of Tarzan.
PHOTO COURTESY Warner Bros.

 

Legendary film producer Darryl Zanuck once said, “The secret to success in Hollywood is giving the public what it wants before it knows it wants it.” In the spirit of that statement and in an effort to keep you ahead of the curve, I’m here to let you know that while you might not know it yet, David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan is the summer movie you want to see … believe me.

Adhering to the spirit of the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels while telling its tale through a post-modern lens, this gorgeously rendered adventure brilliantly combines elements of old-fashioned adventure movies with a modern technical aesthetic while achieving something today’s superhero epics increasingly fail to do – provide us heroes with heart that succeed in moving us while providing the requisite amount of impressive derring-do.

Taking elements from Burroughs’ Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, the script by Adam Cozad and David Brewer finds the titular hero, played with calm yet strong reserve by Alexander Skarsgard, at home in England, attempting to start a family with his beloved Jane (Margot Robbie) to fill the massive Greystoke Manor. However, the English Prime Minister requests that he accept an invitation from King Leopold II of Belgium to assess the colonies he’s established there as well as the improvements made in Tarzan’s native land. He’s reluctant to do so, but is convinced by American abolitionist George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) that not all is as it seems. He suspects that many of the natives are being used for slave labor and that the country’s resources are being stolen. Tarzan agrees to accompany him, reluctantly taking Jane along. The trio unknowingly walks into a trap set by Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who plans to kidnap our hero and turn him over to the vengeful Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) for the mythical jewels of Opar.

Yates at once lets us know this is not your father’s Tarzan, as the setting he creates is much more akin to Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness than Burroughs’ land of adventure. The opening scene, which is a bit unnerving, finds Rom and his group traipsing through rocky outcrops covered in mist, populated by fierce warriors who take no quarter where invaders are concerned. The dead, crucified soldiers they encounter are a testament to this.

Creating an atmosphere of violence and foreboding not only lends dramatic weight to the film but it also serves as an effective metaphor for all that Tarzan is dealing with. Straddling two worlds – one as Lord John Clayton in England, the other as the legendary Ape-Man of the African jungles – the character is in turmoil as to where he truly belongs. Perhaps the smartest thing about Cozad and Brewer’s script is the fact that it examines the myth that’s grown up around the man and how he attempts to reconcile it with his reality. Pulp stories have been written about him, songs are sung in his honor, and Clayton does nothing to dispel the legend that surrounds him when speaking to a group of young children in one of the film’s most charming scenes. Most poignantly, he’s seen examining items that once belonged to his parents as well as an object given to him by his ape mother Kala before leaving for Africa. This existential dilemma adds heft to the character and provides a strong foundation for the film as it also mirrors the conflicting identity of countries such as England and Belguim that would colonize developing nations in the name of “progress.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of action, all of it a wonderful combination of first-rate production design and digital effects. Whether Tarzan is encountering a pride of lions (touching), a troop of apes (frightening) or a herd of elephants (breathtaking), Yates brings all the elements together to create a world of awe-inspiring sights.

Visually dynamic, wonderfully realized by its strong cast and sporting a script of uncommon intelligence for a genre picture, The Legend of Tarzan is not simply the best movie of the summer but one of the best films of the year.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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