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Filmmakers keep it classy in 'Legend of Tarzan'

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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Considering this is now the 21st go at a "Tarzan" film (not even including sequels, spoofs and such), I guess producers should be credited with the fact that they did not succumb to re-inventing the literary vine-swinger to mix with the cultural Zeitgeist of the undead, a la "Pride & Prejudice & Zombies."

"He's still Lord of the Jungle, but now with legions of reanimated dead animals!" "We'll call him Tarzombie!"' "Our tagline could be: 'Him Tarzan! You Dead!'"

No, filmmakers kept it classy in "The Legend of Tarzan," giving us a lengthy introduction of John Clayton, aka Tarzan (played by Alexander Skars-gard), who is now living the life of a London aristocrat with Jane (played by Margot Robbie), where he seems preoccupied by thoughts of his former primal lifestyle.

Enter George Washington Williams (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who persuades Tarzan to return to the Congo to investigate possible enslavement of entire villages deep within (and to perhaps rub out the colonialism of the popular Edgar Rice Burroughs novels). Jane, who grew up in the area with her schoolteacher father, decides to tag along for the ride as well.

It's not too long before we all realize this African vacation is actually a plot by Captain Leon Rom (played by Christoph Waltz), working for the king of Belgium, who actually controls all the natural resources located deep within the jungle. During an ill-fated raid of the village in which the Artist Formerly Known as Tarzan and his bride are staying, Rom's men manage to make off with Jane as hostage.

While in pursuit, we get to watch John slowly adapt back to his Survivorman ways - eating ants, punching gorillas - while George sits back to add comedic relief to the journey. And when we are witnessing these moments of John getting back to his literal roots, the film is stirring and alive with some rather lush (although mostly computer-rendered) scenery-even Skarsgard's sculpted abs seem to be digitized. But one of the issues with this most recent retelling is that it takes so long to get there, a result of the screenplay co-written by Craig Brewer.

Director David Yates certainly carries with him the weight of the last four "Harry Potter" films and has crafted entire worlds from scratch, but he makes an odd choice to keep John from going "full-Tarzan" almost an hour into the picture. Also, the lead's backstory is spliced throughout the film like brief flashbacks, which may seem like an interesting narrative device, but stalls any momentum the film attempts to build.

The other frustrating aspect is the casting of Robbie as Jane. Granted, Jane was seldom more than just a trophy which Tarzan must repeatedly attain on his various quests (unless you consider the ill-fated 1981 softcore extravaganza "Tarzan: The Ape Man" with Bo Derek). But why cast someone with Robbie's charisma only to have her play the tired "woman-in-peril" part? The same can be said with Waltz, who's essentially just Snidely Whiplash in white linen.

I imagine this reboot is to perhaps churn out another series of films, similar to the Johnny Weissmuller days of the '30s, and by stripping away the various contrivances of its Victorian-era setting, future installments can perhaps attain the matinee-idol qualities of the literary, loinclothed hero.

It's hardly the worst of the incarnations of "Tarzan," and it does seem earnest in its intent, but "The Legend of Tarzan" still feels as though it's little more than a passion project from director Yates, who wants to burn off some of that Harry Potter cash he has amassed these last few years.

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Original Publication Date: July 8, 2016

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