Sunday, September 11, 2016

Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan

I saw The Legend of Tarzan at the cheap cinema. I'd read a lot of bad reviews of it -- it garnered only 36% among professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes -- which is why I waited; but having seen it, I disagree strongly with those reviewers. Specifically to the reviewers who thought the pacing was "slow", I advise you to get your ADHD treated... it's affecting your job performance. I have more to say to other reviewers below.

Rather than relating a blow-by-blow, I thought I might just ramble a bit, listing some of my expectations, likes, and dislikes about it as they come to mind. It's in the dollar-cinema now, folks; and the story itself is based on 100-year-old books, so there will be spoilers

From what I'd heard, I expected this production to have an anachronistic "modern" sensibility with respect to the characters. The first rule of historical anything is that you cannot judge the people of that time by the standards of today. I expected this to be violated. I also expected the film to be filmed with unbelievable CGI animals and out-of-place Legolas-like derring-do.

Well, this is Tarzan. It's going to have animals, and in this day they're going to be CGI. But with one unimportant exception (an alligator on a leash) I wasn't pulled out of the narrative by bad rendering. The animals didn't talk, and they didn't behave unlike animals. The 'gorillas' firmly mirrored those of the books, which means they weren't gorillas at all... they were the fictional species that Edgar Rice Burroughs called the mangani. In the same way that bonobos are not chimpanzees, these differ from gorillas in temperament and intelligence. This is the first movie that I recall having seen that makes the distinction explicit.

Tarzan himself did not command the animals, nor did he 'talk' to them except using body language appropriate to the animals themselves. This was introduced expertly in the first meeting of Tarzan and animal on the screen.

Speaking of which... the title character is addressed as 'John' for most of the film. John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke. The movie isn't an origin story (THANK YOU!) and it doesn't begin in Africa, but in London. Lord Greystoke has long been settled in his ancestral home with his wife, Jane Clayton (nee Porter). 

The very subtle humor of the film is firmly established in a scene where Her Majesty's Government requests the services of 'Tarzan' on a public relations mission to the Belgian Congo. Lord Greystoke replies by quietly sipping tea with his pinky finger extended. I almost laughed out loud.

I think the characters are well-drawn. Alexander Skarsgård skillfully portrays the difficult balance between the dignity of John Clayton's aristocratic heritage and his unique, barbaric upbringing. He manages to bring that aristocratic bearing to Tarzan; as well as a touch of embarrassment over his humble beginnings to Lord Greystoke. Before I move on, I want you to look at that picture with the tea again. Observe how he's holding his hands. Nice touch.

We're quickly introduced to George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American envoy who entreats Clayton to accept his government's invitation so as to investigate reports of slavery in the Congo. However, this is not a stereotypical Colonial "White Savior" story. It's far more personal and respectful than than than that. As Jane explains, the villagers and their chief respect Tarzan not out of hero-worship; but because "no man ever started with less." Clayton's mission is to save Jane; but the task of routing the slavers belongs to Williams.

Jackson portrays Williams perfectly. He's a badass in his own environment, who quickly discovers that, heritage aside, Africa is not his environment. Nevertheless, he keeps up and holds his own. As with all the characters, he has dimensionality. He's not just about getting the slavers. We learn he has some guilt of his own.

Oh, the look on that face. Oh, the reason for it.

Jane is the daughter of American missionaries, played by Margot Robbie. Although she is a smart, strong, independent woman; the story does not portray that unrealistically. She's closer to Lois Lane than Harley Quinn in this film. A notable moment: they work the Johnny Weissmuller "Tarzan yell" into the film in a way that doesn't sound cheesy in the slightest. I had firmly expected that if they were to use it, it would be in a "ha ha" kind of moment, as when the William Tell overture plays in "The Lone Ranger". It wasn't like that at all. Instead it was a little bit creepy, and provided the perfect moment for Margo Robbie. Jane's reaction to the yell was an expression that communicated every word of, "My husband is going to f*ck you up and you don't even know it. I feel so sorry for you even though you deserve it, you bastards." All of that in one look.

Sidney Ralitsoele
I LOVE the casting of the natives, and it bothers me that I don't know more of them by name. Hands-down, my favorite is Wasimbu (Sidney Ralitsoele). I don't even recall if Ralitsoele has a single line of dialog in the film. His strongest scenes didn't require it. 

Djimon Hounsou plays Chief Mbonga, who wants Tarzan delivered to him to face the crime of killing Mbonga's only son. Again, this is a fully fleshed character whose motivations drive the (somewhat convoluted) plot; not just someone stuck in there to provide native flavor. Not only does he look like he was chiseled from a solid block of onyx; the man can emote.  I truly feel for him when he has to choose between justice for his son and justice for his people.

Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou)
Now it wouldn't be one of my reviews without my unvarnished opinion, would it? I've seen a hyper-sensitive reviewer ask whether it's even possible to make a Tarzan film that isn't racist. To me, the answer to that is not only "no", but "what frakking moron would want to?" This depicts events at a time when Africans were being enslaved, not in America, but in Africa. If you do any period piece in Africa set in that time, and you didn't depict racism, then you flatly didn't do your job as a filmmaker. If you want to see Tarzan without race, go watch the Disney cartoon... there isn't a single Black person in there, though it is full of sanctimonious White voices. No really, check out the credits... not even one Black voice in that "African" adventure. Not even to play an animal. It's like a private safe space for Liberal hypocrites. This is by design. Disney deliberately left all Black people out of the production so as not to appear racist. And you won't find a word about it in the reviews, either (88% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). So if you're looking for Tarzan without the discomfiture of race, you should be quite comfy there. 

The fact is, director David Yates manages to do something in The Legend of Tarzan that Disney didn't even try... and that is to portray Blacks in Africa as people. They're not caricatures. They're not wallpaper. They're neither idealized nor demonized. They're not Westernized and sanitized. They're just people, as they lived in Africa in 1890.

The monsters in this film are White. Christopher Waltz plays Captain Leon Rom with exactly the right mix of oil and poison to evoke the baddies of 1930s Hollywood.  As a representative of the Belgian king, Rom is doing his utmost to fully exploit the Congo to refill the depleted coffers of his monarch... and enrich himself in the process, of course. To do that, he needs an army of mercenaries. To pay them he needs cash, and he can get it if he delivers Tarzan to Chief Mbonga, who's sitting on a fortune in raw diamonds. To get Tarzan, he kidnaps Jane. And there you have the plot.

To Rom, exploitation of the Congo means not just the resources and mineral wealth, but enslaving the people. He's a bad guy all around. He's obviously racist, as folks were wont to be. And if that weren't evil enough, he carries a rosary of indestructible Madagascar spider-silk, which he uses as a weapon. That little dig at religion might help the snowflakes get past the race thing, if they only forget that Jane's parents were well-loved missionaries in the Kuba village. 

Rom is backed by 20,000 lily-white mercenaries and their banker. If you ground the lot of them into fine powder and sifted it carefully, you might find a single shred of decency and honor among them. So I note with no sense of injustice that the titular character and his wife happen to be of the same race as the 20,002 bad guys. Enough of that nonsense.

There are a few things about this movie that I especially liked:
  • Tarzan isn't some demi-god. He doesn't win every fight. There are even some fights where the point is to not win. And sometimes he just flatly loses a fight. There's one point where that happens -- embarrassingly -- and my first reaction was, "wait a minute! That doesn't happen to heroes," followed quickly by, "but it should, more often!"
  • Director Yates manages to subtly work in just enough of every pop-culture reference to Tarzan that anyone can find an Easter egg. The casting and character design, as well as the treehouse, even strongly favor the aforementioned Disney cartoon. There was the Johnny Weissmuller yell, of course. The distinction drawn between gorillas and Mangani. Lord Greystoke's calloused knuckles. 
I actually have a hard time thinking of anything that I particularly don't like about it. Although I wouldn't call it perfect, it's as good an adaptation as I've ever seen. The pacing does start out slow, but as someone who's not six years old, I enjoy the exposition. And when it does get to the action, that action is so furious as compared to the prim urban scenes that the excitement is magnified. 

As the credits rolled, my biggest question was how The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen failed to include John Clayton as a member.

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