For a review of “The Legend of Tarzan,”
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.
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
Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance star in “The BFG,” directed by Steven Spielberg.