When you’re a journalist charged with the important task of reviewing “The Legend of Tarzan,” you really have no choice but to turn to your most trusted editor.
In my case, that editor is my loving and devoted wife.
Say hello, dear.
“Hello, dear,” she said.
Right. So, I think we can agree that this latest Tarzan the Ape-Man reboot won’t be king of the summer cinema, correct?
“I liked it more than you did,” she said.
Sure. But in this review, I think only two questions need to be answered. They are: “How embarrassing is this particular iteration of the ‘white savior’ trope?” and …
“How embarrassing is the whatsit?” she said.
I’ll explain later. The second question is: “How wondrous are the special effects?”
“No, no,” my wife said. “You’re forgetting the most important question.”
“Of course!” she said. “You’re forgetting the abs!”
“Yes, silly,” she said.
You mean Alexander Skarsgard’s abs?
“Yes!” she said, rather lustily. “They were spec-TAC-ular.”
Well, don’t you think readers will be interested in my learned opinion on the racial subtext of this adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle hero?
“Maybe,” she said. “But the ladies care about the abs.”
Fair point. Nonetheless, there’s no escaping the fact that this particular theme of a white person saving native Africans who can’t save themselves is troubling, to say the least.
“It’s Tarzan,” my wife said. “It’s not real.”
But what it represents …
“Look,” she said, exasperated. “Tarzan spends his days swinging through the trees with monkeys …”
“Apes. Monkeys. Baboons. Orangutans. Whatever,” she said. “The point is: He has no responsibilities. He does nothing but hang out with animals all day while the natives spend their hours working, hunting, foraging, husbanding, fathering. You know — building communities and simply surviving. They don’t have time to learn how to talk to the wildebeests. Tarzan did.”
True. Orphaned as a baby, we learn in flashbacks, Tarzan is raised by a band of gorillas. Loved by the female Kala, he’s also despised by the male leader of the group, Kerchak. He learns the ways of the jungle, while, this being the end of the 19th century, the natives are busy escaping white slavers.
“Plus,” my wife said, “Tarzan had lots of time to do ab exercises.”
OK, can we move past the abs?
“Sure, sure, no problem,” she said. “Because his chest muscles were a-may-zing.”
To their credit, director David Yates (the Harry Potter films) and screenwriters Adam Cozad (“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”) and Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”) attempt to update the early 1900s material for 21st century audiences with slightly more nuanced characters.
Tarzan/Lord Greystoke/John Clayton (Skarsgard) is reluctant to return to the jungle, having assimilated himself back into polite — and safe — British society with his devoted wife, Jane (Margot Robbie).
“She was good,” my wife said. “I liked that she wasn’t just another woman in need of rescue.”
Although much of the film’s narrative drive is, indeed, Tarzan chasing after the Belgians who kidnap her once the couple returns to Africa, Robbie does bring strength and wit to Jane.
“Plus, she’s playing Harley Quinn in ‘Suicide Squad,’ ” my wife said. “That looks awesome.”
Yes, well, back on point, Jane’s captors are raiding and raping the Congo, enslaving the natives to build railroads for the incoming occupying military force.
Paving the way for these dastardly deeds is Leon Rom (an unsettlingly understated Christoph Waltz), who has arranged to deliver the Ape-Man to a revenge-minded Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou).
“Mbonga was intense,” my wife said. “And he was hot, too.”
“Well, not as hot as Tarzan,” she said. “Did you see those arms? Sun’s out, guns out — wow!”
Sigh. Let’s move on to the special effects.
“You are such a nerd,” she said.
Yes, but that’s what these big summer movies are about. The spectacle! The grandeur! The insane lengths to which troupes of underpaid artists will go to make sure every hair on a gorilla’s back moves realistically!
“Whatever,” my wife said. “As computer-generated gorillas go, they’re decent. Not ‘Planet of the Apes’ remake decent, but a long, long ways from ‘Planet of the Apes’ original decent.”
Correct. But the big set piece at the end where a massive herd of water buffalo stampedes through a camp full of European colonials is less convincing. The beasts defy gravity and simple physics, occasionally jumping too high or landing too quickly. It’s almost as if the effects artists were working with two-year-old software.
“Effects? Physics? Software?” my wife said. “Nobody cares about the computery cartoon bits. Write more about Alexander Skarsgard being shirtless in two-thirds of the movie. Talk about defying gravity. Woof!”
Yes, dear. He is a specimen …
“And that part where Tarzan threw that guy through the side of the train car,” she said. “Wowza.”
Of course, dear.
“And the part where Tarzan is using the different mating calls of the beasts of the jungle to seduce Jane,” she said. “Oh, my.”
You’re right, dear.
“And are you going to say anything about Tarzan’s shoulders?” she said, fanning herself. “Hubba hubba.”
Shoulders, chest, arms, legs — “The Legend of Tarzan” has all of those. But people shouldn’t go in to the film expecting a lot of heart or a brainy solutions to material’s inherent problems.
“Pfft,” she said. “Heart. Brains. Who cares? It’s a summer movie! Save the serious stuff for September. I’m going to go see it again this weekend with my girlfriends.”
OK, dear. Now, if you all will excuse me, I’m going to step into the next room and do some sit-ups.
A lot of sit-ups.
David Frese, who offers this review with apologies to the late, great Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DavidFrese.
‘The Legend of Tarzan’
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:50.
Tarzan’s beauty secrets
The New York Times asked “Legend of Tarzan” star Alexander Skarsgard whether his abs are computer generated:
“They’re all mine,” he said. “But I didn’t want any muscle mass that didn’t serve a purpose, because animals don’t have that. So the first phase was three months of bulking up, which was 7,000 calories a day of meat and potatoes and weightlifting. I put on about 24 pounds of muscle and fat. Then we switched to a much stricter diet, six small meals a day, and I started working with the choreographer Wayne McGregor.”
His Tarzan doesn’t wear a loincloth, and Skarsgard is fine with the nudity.
“I’m totally comfortable if it makes sense,” he said. “And for those scenes, I felt, why would he be wearing a loincloth? That kind of prudish behavior is very human. So it wouldn’t make sense for him, being raised by apes, to say, ‘Excuse me, guys, I actually want to cover up here.’”