Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan

(Movie Review)

My History With Tarzan
I saw the 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man (W) once as a child.  I think I was about 9 or 10.  It was on TV one night.  I pleaded with my parents to be allowed to watch it, and they finally relented.

I never read any of the books, although I did read the first 3 books in the John Carter of Mars series by the same author.

Why I Saw This Movie
I didn't really have any good reason for seeing this movie, other than the fact that it was an excuse to get out of the apartment.  And besides, back in January I pledged to try to cut down on my mindless Internet surfing and Youtube videos and watch more real movies instead.

* So, as every other reviewer has already commented, the racial politics inherited from the original source material are problematic.

* When the movie started out with Tarzan as Lord Greystoke, already rescued from the jungle and living in England, I was initially very happy.  This was not going to be a stupid origin story.  We're not going to have to sit through that stupid Tarzan and Jane story that everyone already knows anyway.  We can just cut immediately to the exciting stuff.
But that initial happiness was undercut very quickly when I realized that this was an origin story after all.  It's just that the origin story was cut up into flashbacks, and interspersed throughout the whole movie.
This was a horrible decision.  It just absolutely killed the forward momentum of the movie's plot.  Every time the story would start to go somewhere interesting, the movie would stop dead to go back and do another stupid flashback.
If the origin of Tarzan absolutely has to be retold one more time, than it would have been much better to just put all that stuff right at the beginning of the movie and get it over and done with.

* The editing on the action scenes is bad, the cuts are too quick, and it makes it hard to follow the action during the action scenes.  And if you have an action movie without any good action scenes---well, what's the point really?

* There's a lot of CGI animals in this movie.  Which I suppose is a necessary evil given the type of story they're telling.  (It's not like you could expect real gorillas or hippos to perform these kind of stunts.)  But unfortunately, we're still a long way off from believable CGI animals, and it's just way too obvious that all of the animals are computer drawn.

* Samuel L. Jackson delivers a great performance as Tarzan's constantly suffering companion.

* The transformation of Tarzan from his new life as an established English lord to remembering his jungle roots was interesting.

* The movie does a good job of conveying the sense of wonder and awe about the jungle.

*  Related to the above point, the scenery in this movie is pretty gorgeous.

The Review
In spite of all my complaints above, I was mostly entertained during the runtime of this movie.  The plot is mildly interesting.  The jungle scenes mostly played out with a sense of wonder, and the action scenes, while somewhat hard to follow at times, were basically okay.

3 Stars.  Not a great movie, but watchable.

Other Notes
* It was an interesting choice to base a pulpy action movie like this on real historical events.  But after having read, and thoroughly enjoyed The Scramble for Africa, I can appreciate the history behind this a little more.
For example, the 1884 Berlin Conference (mentioned briefly in the movie's opening subtitles) was a big event in that book.  As were the atrocities committed by King Leopold and the Belgium government in the Congo.  In fact, the horrors the Belgians committed in the Congo in real life were actually even worse than what was portrayed in the movie.

* The main Belgian bad guy is constantly carrying around a rosary (which he also uses as a strangling weapon).  The movie doesn't really attempt to do much more than that with the character or his religious background, so I wouldn't be inclined to make a big deal about it.  But other reviewers have read this as heavy handed symbolism (see here and here).
Are the filmmakers trying to make some point about religion?  I'd say no, because they don't really do anything else with it.  I'd see the way Christopher Waltz's characters uses the rosary as a strangling weapon as just a gimmick--the way all the old James Bond villains used to have strange and gimmicky ways of killing people (poison tipped shoes, deadly throwing hats, covering people with gold).
But just in case I'm wrong, and the film makers are trying to make a statement, let me say my two bits about this:
--Look, I'm no fan of organized religion.  Historically, Christianity has a lot of things to answer for.  But what happened in the Congo is not one of those things.  What happened in the Congo was purely exploitative capitalism.  In fact if anything, it was the missionaries, along with Christian do-gooders in America and England, who campaigned to end the atrocities in the Congo.  (See The Scramble for Africa).
Remembering the truth matters in this case because we are currently entering into a post religious age, in which the atheistic capitalists are going to try to convince us that these historical atrocities can all be laid at the feet of wacky religious nut-jobs, and have nothing to do with exploitative capitalist systems.

* While wasting my life surfing through videos on Youtube, I came across this interview with Alexander Skarsgard in which he talks about the incredible psychological cost of getting so ripped for this role.

Of course, it immediately made me think of Whisky's post on Hollywood and fitness training.

Link of the Day
Chomsky responds to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan


Darrell Reimer said...

I used to re-read Tarzan & The City Of Gold with some frequency. It's amusing to pick up now -- it pretty much sets the template for these jokers who live and die by "Game," and I have to think that was a deep part of its appeal to me as a scrawny adolescent. I read most of the other books as well, but City of Gold stood out.

As a kid I tried to catch the Ron Ely TV series on those Saturday mornings when my parents were otherwise occupied. I stumbled across an episode some years back, and it's pretty bad. I watched the 80s movie iterations -- Bo Derek's, and the one with Chris Lambert and Andie MacDowell. Again, really awful stuff. The Disney animated movie that came out in '99 was far and away the best of the lot -- and it had singing chimps.

I guess the character still has a sort of primal resonance, otherwise the movies would have stopped. Not with me, mind you -- by now Tarzan's colonial baggage is too great a burden of self-awareness. But the whole "run through the jungle" motif remains a fine fantasy. The whole "Mudder" craze taps into the appeal, I think.

Joel Swagman said...

I really should pick up the books one day, just to see what they're like.

I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone go out of their way to see this movie in the theaters, but it's not completely horrible. It may be worth watching if it's ever on TV someday.

I never saw the Disney version of this movie. I was 21 when it came out, and it just wasn't a priority for me. It was interesting, however, watching a lot of the reviews on Youtube by a lot of 20-somethings, who only knew Tarzan from the Disney version. It made me feel old realizing that an entire generation has already grown up since that movie came out.