MOVIE BUFF-ET: OK effort with Legend of Tarzan still leaves fans hanging from a vine

Still from The Legend of Tarzan

Courtesy, Warner Bros.

As a fan, The Legend of Tarzan may have been the film I anticipated the most this year. I fell in love with the character in my youth, watching the old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films from the 1930s and ’40s in the early 1970s when old movies were a staple of afternoon and late-night programing on three of the four channels available.

I may be admitting too much when I write that as a preschooler I would run around my parents’ stockade fence-enclosed back yard in my underwear while brandishing a butter knife and imagining that I was The King of the Jungle.

The Legend of Tarzan

(PG-13) 1 hr., 50 mins.

I would climb up and jump off — sometimes fall off — any object I could. I’d roll around on the ground pretending I was grappling with a lion or wrestling an alligator. I acted like I was dodging spears or ducking poison darts, and I broke more imaginary rifles over my knee than I could count.

And of course, I’d belt out a holler that sounded just like Weissmuller’s distinctive wild-man wail, or at least it sounded spot-on to my ear.

You have no idea how bad I wanted a chimpanzee friend like Cheetah the chimp. In the movies, Cheetah was Tarzan’s best buddy and comic relief all rolled into one ball of fun.

I actually put a chimpanzee on my Christmas list one year. Thankfully, old Santa knew that I’d be better off with those little, green, plastic toy soldiers and a Tarzan action figure — which were called dolls back then — instead of a live ape.

So when I plopped down in the seat to watch Tarzan’s latest cinematic adventure, I wanted the movie to transport me back to that carefree time. Of course, asking any movie to do that is too great of a demand.

No movie, no matter how well crafted, can totally recapture the glee of childhood imagination and play. It’s just not a fair expectation.

I would like to report that I loved the film, directed by David Yates, the man behind the final four Harry Potter movies, but I can’t.

I did like the movie, though, and if you have any connection to the character or appreciation for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories, you should have no hesitation. See it.

The film captures the essence of Burroughs’ novels, perhaps as faithfully as any other movie save for the 1984 effort Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. I also appreciated that the new film gave several nods to the Weissmuller movies, and did so without totally dumbing down the film to the “me Tarzan; you Jane” cliché.

However, the film road a tonal roller coaster that was distracting. On one hand, it attempted to be a serious story, dealing with Tarzan’s dual royalty as a lord in England, and his position as The Lord of the Jungle in Africa. On the other hand, it embraced the character’s pulpy roots.

Samuel L. Jackson played a classic sidekick as George Washington Williams. With bugged-out eyes and his mouth agape, Williams’ role in the movie was to marvel at Tarzan’s fantastic physical feats. Jackson has undeniable charisma, but his stereotypical performance really was beneath him.

While Margot Robbie fought nobly to lift her character above its damsel-in-distress roots with a spunky attitude and a facially expressive performance, Jane basically is a love interest in need of rescue. Robbie couldn’t get around it.

Never let it be said the camera doesn’t love Robbie. It definitely does. She just needs the right project and the right role to truly break out. Unfortunately, Jane wasn’t it.

As Captain Leon Rom of Belgium, Christoph Waltz waltzed into another villain role that he’s specialized in since 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. Waltz is a fine character actor, but in this film, he danced a very fine line between performance and self-parody. I was expecting him to twirl his mustache and then tie Jane to a train track every time he showed up on screen.

Wisely, Yates stayed away from telling a linear origin story. He deftly interweaved Tarzan’s upbringing in the jungle as well as his first encounter with Jane into the greater narrative as unobtrusively as possible. He dished it outs in bits, and in doing so advanced the story. However, the overarching storyline, which dealt with Tarzan flaunting Belgium’s plan to plunder the Congo’s resources by enslaving its manpower seemed very broad for a character like Tarzan.

The “B” plot, which featured a mishap in Tarzan’s youth igniting a feud with a native chieftain, was certainly more personal and emotional. Maybe Yates and screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer should have settled on one or the other?

As for Tarzan himself, Alexander Skarsgard fit the movie. He was O.K. in the part, but certainly not a home run. Skarsgard no doubt looked the part. He played the stoicism of the role well, but when Tarzan cut loose, he remained too icy. While the Tarzan of Burroughs’ novels became a distinguished royal, he retained a wild, brutish side of his nature that Skarsgard failed to sell.

Skarsgard’s scene where he encounters three old friends who happen to be lions is perhaps his best work in the movie. The animals were no doubt computer generated, but it’s his performance that sells the scene rather than the skill of the animaters.

The film has its weak points. The pacing could be an issue for the impatient during the first quarter of the film, but it ultimately delivers on the action in the last half.

Overall, it’s a solid summertime, popcorn movie.

Grade: B-

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Classic Corner

The Long, Hot Summer
(2:45 p.m. Saturday, TCM)

There may not be a more aptly titled film than director Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer. For it’s day, the 1958 film was steamy and even a bit lurid as stars Paul Newman (Ben Quick) and Joanne Woodward (Clara Varner) fall in love on the big screen and in real life.

The two married during the production of the picture that was inspired by the novels of William Faulkner, and they remained wed until Newman’s death 50 years later. Watching the film, it’s easy to imagine how the two fell in love. I mean, how could either resist? Newman was the smoldering bad boy, lured to Woodward’s fresh incandescence. The more she attempted to pull away; the more attracted she became.

The film, set in Frenchman’s Bend, Miss., but shot in Louisiana, revolves around the wealthy Varner family, with Orson Wells playing patriarch Will Varner. Varner spent his life building a fortune in property and influence, but he doubts his son Jody (Anthony Franciosa) has the wherewithal to maintain the wealth and social stature he established.

After Jody hires Ben as a sharecropper, Will takes a shine to Ben, who possesses the assertiveness and audacity that propelled Will to the top. Will then begins to orchestrate a marriage between daughter Clara and Ben to ensure his legacy rests in capable hands.

Jody senses what is happening and intends to go to almost any lengths to keep it from happening.

The movie made a star out of Newman and revitalized Ritt’s career after he was blacklisted for a decade amid rumors of suspected ties to the Communist Party.

Some see the movie as Wells’ last great performance, while others believe he had already become a parody. Lee Remick as Jody’s wife Eula and Angela Lansbury as Will’s longtime mistress add even more pepper to a pot that’s already boiling.

The film may play a bit melodramatic to modern audiences, but watching a magnetic, young Newman come into his own as an actor and a star makes the effort to stick with the film more than worth it.