For a re­view of “The Leg­end of Tarzan,”

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Stop me if you’ve seen this one be­fore.

Af­ter umpteen on­screen ap­pear­ances, Tarzan is back. Dis­ap­point­ing but am­bi­tious, “The Leg­end of Tarzan” uses Edgar Rice Bur­roughs’ source ma­te­rial se­lec­tively rather than slav­ishly. Direc­tor David Yates, who gave us four work­man­like chap­ters in the “Harry Pot­ter” cy­cle, re­boots the iconic king of the jungle through a nar­ra­tive time por­tal.

He in­tro­duces Lord Greystoke to view­ers years af­ter his de­par­ture from the wild. He is a re­fined Bri­tish adult wear­ing 1880s Vic­to­rian fin­ery and sip­ping his tea with a prop­erly ex­tended pinkie fin­ger. Alexan­der Skars­gard plays the part with un­der­state­ment suit­ing a man liv­ing far fromhis home (cen­tral Africa) and fam­ily (a tribe of apes that raised him through in­fancy when his ex­plorer par­ents died).

A civ­i­lized gent who speaks with ad­jec­tives and verbs, he is re­cruited by Her Majesty’s gov­ern­ment to in­ves­ti­gate trou­bling de­vel­op­ments in the Bel­gian Congo. The con­temptible King Leopold II in­tends to strip his pos­ses­sion of ev­ery di­a­mond and ivory tusk at what­ever cost of lo­cal life that may re­quire. The tone is far more somber than most Tarzan pre­de­ces­sors, where mon­keyshines and fun were re­li­able in­gre­di­ents in the mix.

Yates seems to be mak­ing this era’s Tarzan a dark hy­brid of art and re­al­is­tic truth about racism and xeno­pho­bia, giv­ing the en­ter­prise a solemn air. It’s a valiant strug­gle but it feels cal­cu­lated rather than or­ganic and en­ter­tain­ing.

Skars­gard, who spends a lot of time aban­don­ing shirts to bare his lithe, rangy physique, swings on African vines like Spi­der-Man whip­ping across Man­hat­tan on monofil­a­ment. He pur­sues his spy mis­sion with the aid of his gor­geous squeeze-turned-spouse Jane (Mar­got Rob­bie, de­liv­er­ing a bit of spir­ited, self-re­liant “I am woman, hear me roar” en­ergy).

They are ac­com­pa­nied by a Civil War vet­eran fromthe United States, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Wil­liams. In that role, Sa­muel L. Jack­son again proves his abil­ity to zing the drea­ri­est lines. The film re­unites Jack­son with his fre­quent co-star Christoph Waltz, play­ing the cen­tral bad­die as a shy, nerdy char­ac­ter with a tal­ent for us­ing his cru­ci­fix and rosary beads as a lethal gar­rote. Like much of what’s on dis­play here, he’s not cred­i­ble in the least.

The saga doesn’t tell a co­her­ent story so much as jug­gle tropes, im­ages and archetypes from ear­lier, more en­joy­able adap­ta­tions.

This “Tarzan” never de­vel­ops a con­sis­tent or rec­og­niz­able groove. Though it is plot­ted with lim­ited imag­i­na­tion, it over­flows with as­saultive sen­sory overkill. Yates turns his many com­bat scenes up to full Harry Pot­ter spec­ta­cle. There are on­go­ing an­i­mal at­tacks fea­tur­ing armies of os­triches, wilde­beests, hip­pos and croc­o­diles. Tarzan has sev­eral rock’em-sock’em, mano a mano bat­tles with apes and even against Chief Mbonga (Dji­mon Houn­sou), an en­emy war­lord who re­sents him so much he’ll give di­a­monds to Brus­sels for the chance to kill him.

When it’s not la­bor­ing clunkily to gen­er­ate ex­cite­ment, the film de­liv­ers the long­est, most lin­ger­ing full­face close-ups ever col­lected in an ac­tion film. Cer­tainly it’s good to ob­serve a Ti­tian- haired beauty like Rob­bie and a brood­ing per­former like Waltz at length. It’s bet­ter than keep­ing our fo­cus on the non-African-look­ing lo­ca­tions, but it makes the fo­cus of the film fade into the back­ground. Like much in the movie, it’s a chal­leng­ing idea that’s in­no­va­tive in an im­per­fect way.

“The Leg­end Of Tarzan,” a Warner Bros. En­ter­tain­ment re­lease, is rated PG-13 for se­quences of ac­tion and vi­o­lence, some sen­su­al­ity and brief rude di­a­logue. Run­ning time: 109 min­utes.

“The BFG”

Steven Spiel­berg loves in­tro­duc­ing chil­dren to al­ter­nate uni­verses and amaz­ing crea­tures.

“Close En­coun­ters of the Third Kind,” “E. T.” and “Juras­sic Park” aren’t just tech­no­log­i­cal won­ders, they’re great orig­i­nal kids’ ad­ven­tures. His magic act works less ef­fec­tively when he makes faith­ful adap­ta­tions of ex­ist­ing chil­dren’s clas­sics. His 2011 duo “War Horse” and “The Ad­ven­tures of Tintin” de­serve po­lite golf course ap­plause; his Peter Pan re­make “Hook” was bang-your-head-on-the-desk aw­ful.

Now he gives us “The BFG,” a story of a plucky English or­phan girl and a huge, gen­tle fel­low try­ing to stop big­ger, meaner giants from gob­bling Bri­tish lads and lassies.

In the open­ing, a cloaked colos­sus crosses the latenight streets of Lon­don, dis­ap­pear­ing in shad­ows when­ever pass­ing lo­cals might spy him. Peek­ing into a large or­phan­age, he’s seen by lit­tle So­phie, slips his huge hand in the win­dow and snatches her up, car­ry­ing her across pas­toral land­scapes to Gi­ant Coun­try be­fore she can re­port him.

Back in his cave, she wor- ries that she’s about to be­come his break­fast, and is re­lieved to learn that he’s a ve­gan gen­tle­man, wiser than his gob­bledy­gook gram­mar im­plies — a Big Friendly Gi­ant in­deed. Each treats the other with sym­pa­thy, and they for­man odd friend­ship, like a young­ster and grand­par­ent con­spir­ing against a tribe of pow­er­ful, con­trol­ling, par­ent-sized nas­ties.

The live ac­tion per­for­mance by new­comer Ruby Barn­hill as the girl, and Mark Ry­lance’s work voic­ing and act­ing the ti­tle role through a com­puter lens, are charm­ing. In his first di­rect­ing gig for Dis­ney, Spiel­berg gives Roald Dahl’s 1982 chil­dren’s book a pol­ished cor­po­rate gloss. Com­bin­ing mo­tion-cap­ture per­for­mance and mirac­u­lous com­puter-gen­er­ated vi­su­als, the machi­na­tions are flaw­less. There is not a shin­ing shaft of sun­light or a green blade of grass that hasn’t been beau­ti­fied.

Yet tome, it feels over­done, too lit­eral and not ab­stract enough to frame this fan­tasy. Where Dahl’s book had dozens of won­der­fully wob­bly il­lus­tra­tions by Quentin Blake, his car­i­ca­tured, car­toon­ish flair has been imitated, dig­i­tally erased and ex­ces­sively Bo­toxed. When you spend time think­ing about how lovely the im­ages are rather than fol­low­ing the story, the film is miss­ing some­thing.

The screen­play by the late Melissa Mathi­son ( who wrote “The Black Stal­lion” and “E.T.”) min­i­mizes the book’s mo­ments of Broth­ers Grimm dark­ness, an­other form of Dis­ney nice­ness that I wish they’d avoided. Dahl’s tales are of­ten painfully funny, with a kind of fierce satire, macabre com­edy and ironic de­tach­ment that help lit­tle read­ers grasp the world’s com­pli­cated realities.

There’s a pas­sage in the novel where the BFG ex­plains to So­phie why giants would much rather can­ni­bal­ize Turk­ish folk than Greeks that is a riot of po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect hi­lar­ity. Re­mov­ing that mo­ment and more re­duces the story’s wry tone. Fans of the orig­i­nal will be happy to learn that sev­eral scenes of “whiz pop­ping,” where char­ac­ters ex­pel rocket-fuel lev­els of gas, made the fi­nal cut. In Dis­ney­land, noth­ing be­yond gen­teel naugh­ti­ness is al­lowed.

It all adds up to fine fam­ily fare, and surely fun-packed ex­cite­ment for kids. But it left me feel­ing that Spiel­berg at this point in his life and ca­reer is bet­ter at thought­ful, his­tory-based adult ma­te­rial.

See­ing him pro­duce such a tri­fle is sim­i­lar to watch­ing a larger-than-life con­duc­tor like Leonard Bern­stein wave his ba­ton through “Twin­kle, Twin­kle Lit­tle Star.” He does it with pre­ci­sion, not pas­sion.

“The BFG” isn’t Spiel­berg’s high­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor. It isn’t even Dahl’s. His spiky world­view is much bet­ter served in de­li­ciously wicked ver­sions like Mel Stu­art’s “Willy Wonka and the Choco­late Fac­tory,” Ni­co­las Roeg’s “The Witches” and Wes An­der­son’s “Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox.” “The BFG” could have been a whiz-bang, but it’s mostly whizpop­ping.

“The BFG,” a Dis­ney re­lease, is rated PG for ac­tion/ peril, some scary mo­ments and brief rude hu­mor. Run­ning time: 117 min­utes. ½

TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

Ruby Barn­hill and Mark Ry­lance star in “The BFG,” di­rected by Steven Spiel­berg.

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