Wednesday, July 6, 2016
by Tony Dayoub
Recent events in the (not so) United Kingdom have altered my perception of a couple of movies in which Britain serves as a faint backdrop. Each misses the mark in some surprising ways. Certainly, the American take on a fantasy England and its genial queen found in Steven Spielberg's The BFG makes the most obvious missteps. But The Legend of Tarzan, directed by the very British David Yates (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) isn't too far behind despite, save for its start and conclusion, largely avoiding Great Britain.
The Legend of Tarzan
Ignoring the fact that Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs was an American, Yates chooses to put the ape man's English DNA at the forefront of The Legend of Tarzan, indulging in a healthy dose of revisionism, . Though Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) reverts to his animalistic persona often enough, his time back in Victorian civilization as John Clayton III, the rightful Earl of Greystoke, has made him considerably more reluctant to give in to his animal tendencies. Or return to Africa for that matter, refusing to travel in the capacity of rubber stamp for British nobles hoping to associate themselves with the Belgian monarch, King Leopold II. It's only some mighty impassioned convincing from real-life historical figure George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) that persuades Tarzan to return to the Congo to investigate the unlawful enslavement of large numbers of Africans at the hands of the Belgian army led by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, this time with a nice mustache to twirl).
No amount of backbending by the filmmakers (and the inclusion of an obscure figure like Williams is proof that the filmmakers are bending way over backwards) can hide the fact that the Tarzan tale is still a white savior myth, a quality heightened by the recent Brexit and its xenophobic repercussions. However, Yates escapes dreary England much faster than Hugh Hudson's 1984 Greystoke, a pseudo-inspiration for this iteration that Yates improves upon. A simple flashback structure saves us from having to experience Tarzan's origin backstory for the umpteenth time. The fantastic casting of Margot Robbie as Clayton's beloved wife, Jane, elevates the character from mere damsel to the jungle lord's spiritual, if not physical, equal. That would be hard to achieve, as Jackson's Williams would no doubt attest. Experienced soldier and adventurer that he is, Williams still has trouble keeping pace with Tarzan in his element, barely able to run through the lush foliage, balance himself on thick tree branches, or swing on the giant vines at anywhere near the speed that Tarzan can. Yates emphasizes the abnormal physique required to do so, enlisting Skarsgård in re-shaping his already large muscles to ones that are practically balloon-like. Whether through CGI manipulation or not, Tarzan seems like a giant with enlarged, misshapen hands that betray years of walking on all fours.
Those are some nifty ideas that enliven a film that still comes across as more than a little antiquated for our times. Playing more like a literate prestige film, one that at least attempts some insightful demythologization, one wonders if The Legend of Tarzan would have played better in awards season, the way a throwback like the chauvinistic Skyfall benefited largely by standing out as the rare action film to tickle its audience's nostalgia bone. The Legend of Tarzan definitely isn't appealing to younger viewers which might be mystified by its depiction of a solemn white aristocrat sympathetic to the plight of endangered Africans forced into slavery. Still, expect this one to have some legs once it reaches home screens. There is more to digest in The Legend of Tarzan than a first glance suggests.
"Dreams are so quick... on the outside. They's long on the inside."
That wonderful quote from The BFG sort of suits the movie, a good enough fable by the wonderful Roald Dahl that, in the hands of Steven Spielberg, reveals a kind of creaky thinness. The basic story of an orphan girl (Ruby Barnhill) and her big friendly giant (Mark Rylance) is an ingratiating reversal on Spielberg's E.T., with the lovable "monster" keeping the girl for himself this time, instead of the other way around. No surprise, since Dahl's book was adapted by E.T.'s late screenwriter Melissa Mathison. Where E.T. was able to layer in subtext about the filmmaker himself being a child of divorce, however, The BFG struggles to pad its running time with anything more than flights of fancy into the world of the gentle giant and his contentious relationship with his brethren. Every moment spent with the BFG's obnoxious fellow giants takes us away from the fascinating chemistry between Sophie and her kind captor.
To be sure, there are beautiful tangents like the one pictured above, a scene where the giant and his captive go to a forest to "collect" dreams, or later on, an amusing extended encounter between the two and the Queen of England herself. A diplomatic sharing of the giant's drink of choice, frobscottle, gets the court more than it bargained for. In that fizzy concoction, the bubbles go down instead of up, so go ahead and imagine where a human bean is more likely to expel any of the attendant gas. It's an unabashed foray into the kind of gross humor that kids the world over find so appealing. But strangely enough, this reductive view of a fantasy United Kingdom coming together to fight comical giants is overshadowed by the insular Brexit UK currently on display all over the media. Spielberg could hardly predict the timing of the release of The BFG would be so inopportune. However, it's the chasm between the real and the magical that contributes to the slightness of the tale and may beg the most unattainable suspension of disbelief of them all.