Friday, July 1, 2016

“The Legend of Tarzan” – Dueling jungle flicks.

Let’s play a little game I like to call “Bwaaaa?” In this episode, we will be looking at a couple of critics’ responses to two movies that are similar in far too many ways, but at least have different plots – The Jungle Book (JB) and The Legend of Tarzan (LT). In other words, they should have roughly the same ratings, all things considered. It’s a simple game – I say stuff and you try not to say bwaaaa or smack your forehead. Here we go. First, we’ll level set the movies.

• Both movies center on a male human raised by jungle animals.
• Both movies are heavily reliant on CGI animals and CGI jungle.
• Both movies are based on stories written more than 100 years ago (JB – 1894; LT – 1919).
• Both movies were released within three months of each other this year.

Now, here are the current ratings scores for the two films.

• Rotten Tomatoes – 95% for JB; 30% for LT.
• Metacritic – 77% for JB; 41% for LT.

I expect you’ve uttered at least one bwaaaa to this point, but now the real fun begins. Let’s start with Peter Howell of the Toronto Star, beginning with the review titles.

JB – “The Jungle Book more than just bare necessities.”
LT – “The Legend of Tarzan retells old tale, but why?”

Right away, you can see that Mr. Howell has a massive double standard or was drunk when he wrote those titles. JB unabashedly retells its original story (or at least the animated movie’s story) with very minor tweaks, but Mr. Howell chooses to ignore that for JB. And, he doubles down in the opening of each review.

JB – “The laws of nature and animals are much discussed in Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book, but only one rule really applies: Don’t screw it up. Happily, the spirit of the beloved 1967 animated classic survives and even thrives as live-action drama, directed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau.”

LT – “It’s possible, even likely, that more effort was expended on sculpting Alexander Skarsgard’s abs for The Legend of Tarzan than on providing good reason why the movie was made.”

Why does this happen? Why excuse one movie, but not the other? Well, maybe he at least acknowledges they both have great CGI.

JB – “Photo-realistic animals replace familiar cartoon characters with the fidelity you’d expect from a National Geographic special.”

LT – “Magnificent abs they are: a sculpted six-pack that could bounce not just a gold coin but an entire bag of them. They’re also among the few things that actually look real, in a film so larded with CGI, little appears to have any weight or substance within the hazy grey-green digital foliage.”

That looks totally real.

Are you kidding me? Other than a slightly different color palate (green-gray versus gray-green) and talking animals, they have the same quality of CGI, especially the animals. Ok, last chance – he has to at least agree that both feature well-worn stories that should elicit virtually no reaction other than noting them, right?

JB – “The story nods to the familiar with its coming-of-age tale of loin-clothed Mowgli leaving the wolf pack and striking out on his own.”

LT – “In telling for the umpteenth time the Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn of a noble Englishman raised by apes in “savage” Africa,”

Alright, enough. I’ve read some hack pieces before, but Mr. Howell has put together some really shitty reviews (and I’m using the word “reviews” very loosely) that are clearly biased for no reason he’s willing to explain, especially considering he spent a grand total of eleven sentences discussing LT and twelve sentences on JB. That’s barely enough space to summarize a movie (which is essentially what he’s doing), let alone give an honest and informative review.

Let’s move on to our other contestant, Richard Roeper (yes, that Richard Roeper). To be fair, Mr. Roeper rates LT as adequate and entertaining, but still goes way over the top with JB on certain aspects that are no better than LT. Case in point, the CGI:

JB – “…but thanks to director Jon Favreau’s visionary guidance and some of the most impressive blends of live-action and CGI we’ve yet seen, “The Jungle Book” is a beautifully rendered, visually arresting take…Every drop of rain, every cracking tree branch, every swaying tree and (most impressively) every jungle creature in the film looks amazingly real”

LT – “Which brings us to perhaps the most serious drawback of the film: the jungle creatures. They’re all CGI, and far too many times, they look VERY CGI. Some of the apes have more animated facial expressions than mid-1990s Jim Carrey, while ostriches, the aforementioned lions, hippos and other creatures look great from a distance but not so believable when the humans are “interacting” with them.”

Maybe he missed the part with the giant orangutan (King Louie) that easily looked as CGI as anything LT had to offer. Or the gigantic snake (Ka). Or when Mowgli runs into the butt of an animal at the watering hole. I’m sorry, but you don’t get to complain about the facial expressions on apes or interactions of lions with a human in one fantasy movie, but then be okay with a singing, dancing bear emoting like a human (watch the honey scene again) in another fantasy movie. How’s your forehead now?

That looks totally fake.

I could go on, but I don’t want you to give yourself a concussion. So, here’s my take.

Many of the critics seem to be hung up on the fact that LT includes little sidebars on several societal topics (slavery, exploitation of Africa, greed), convincing themselves that the story is muddled and can’t decide what it wants to be, even though the story couldn’t be more straightforward – bad guys want to exploit a region and its people so as to get filthy rich and good guys want to stop them. Toss in classic tropes ‘damsel in distress,’ ‘reluctant hero,’ and ‘plucky sidekick’ and we’ve got ourselves a standard adventure movie, complete with a mustachioed villain who kills people the same way as Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4. All of those side topics are exactly that – side topics, so of course they aren’t fully fleshed out. This isn’t that kind of movie nor should it be.

Performance-wise, I don’t think they could have cast any better. Alexander Skarsgard (Tarzan), Margot Robbie (Jane), Christoph Waltz (evil villain), and Samuel L. Jackson (plucky sidekick) are all good in their respective roles. Skarsgard is believable as an incredibly-cut, raised by apes, jungle man who just wants to save his wife. Robbie gives us a Jane who isn’t just a helpless damsel in distress, defiant to her captors and sometimes to Tarzan, and a person we care enough about that we want her to be saved. Waltz delivers a villain who is two parts slime and two parts cunning – a villain we want to see trampled by wildebeasts as much as we want to see Jane rescued. And, Jackson delivers some much needed comic relief as only he can – blending Nick Fury’s dry wit with Jules Winnfield’s serious wit to keep this movie from plunging into a morass of brooding and chest thumping.

To be fair, LT does have some issues, but they are minor. The scenes where Tarzan is swinging through the jungle feel a little over the top, as Tarzan is whipping around as fast as Spider-Man (at one point, we are told a train they are swinging to is moving at 40 miles an hour). I also didn’t buy the villain’s suggested infatuation with Jane as his reason for hanging on to her even after she served her purpose (he has zero ties to her, not even a newspaper clipping he might have had of her since she was quasi-famous). I’m not excusing those little things, but they weren’t enough to torpedo the movie for me. One thing I did like was how well they intertwined Tarzan’s origin story into the film (through flashbacks) without making it the focal point of the narrative.

Eye candy for all.

Looking back at my review of JB, I had no issues with the plot of the movie or some of the technical elements. My issue was that it was almost a straight remake of the cartoon, but lacked a lot of the charm of that cartoon. What makes LT a more recommendable film is that previous incarnations of Tarzan have been silly and are completely unwatchable in 2016 and LT is a very adequate movie. Conversely, the JB cartoon is still very watchable and the 2016 live-action JB has a worse ending. It also helps that LT is much more obviously aimed at adults (and Skarsgard and Robbie are absurdly gorgeous humans if all you want is eye candy) because I am an adult. But when it comes down to comparing these two movies, do not let the aggregate ratings sites fool you – The Legend of Tarzan is easily as entertaining as The Jungle Book and neither is telling you a story you haven’t already seen many times over.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back and remember to put some ice on that.

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