Thursday, July 7, 2016

Two Ungawas Way Up!

We interrupt and delay the X-reviews (yet again) to point out a recent release in a franchise that FINALLY is going deeply into the source material after a mere hundred and four years and needs as much love as it can get.

More importantly, The Legend of Tarzan does something we haven’t seen in a Tarzan film in a long while. 

It remembers everyone knows who Tarzan is.

Like most people, I first encountered the ape raised John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke as a kid. (That's his original title,  the “Earl” came from later, secondary sources.)  In my case it was in the Filmation series Tarzan Lord of the Jungle that premiered in 1976.  This prepared me for my eventual association with the character as, despite rotoscoping and constantly recycling animation and music, it was remarkably faithful to the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels.  It featured the Mangani language, many of the settings of the books and a smart and well-spoken Tarzan voiced by Robert “Thundarr” Ridgely.

I would learn of the powerful effect the character could have on his fans a few years later.  My cousin Eric watched the Johnny Weissmuller films with his Dad when he was a wee lad every Sunday morning. They were opposite Abbot and Costello flicks which is why I never saw them.  At home he had a game involving his rubber knife, and a pillow substituting for the crocodiles Tarzan would wrestle in frequently reused footage.

When I had reached my teenage years and liked to sleep late Up the Lake , Eric substituted me for the pillow.  I'd awaken to my bed slightly shaking as he clambered across the gap from his bunk bed. Then I’d look up and there would be Eric, one foot on either side of my waist, teeth clenched, rubber knife wielding fist raised.

He’d shout “Ungawa!  Kill the alligator!”
Then leap - 

Knees first- 

Onto my chest.

Even a wee lad doesn’t feel that “wee” when impacting on one’s sternum like that.

He did this every single morning...

All summer long.

This may be responsible for my initial prejudice against the Weissmuller films.

My other resistance to watching those movies came from the main source of my Tarzan education.  The same weird little bookstore in the then failing mall in Cedar Knolls where I purchased the Robert E. Howard Conan books kept the Neil Adams cover art Burroughs novels sporadically on the shelves as well.  Their random stocking patterns and out of the way location insured I’d never purchase the whole set en masse.  However, my forays to the largely unvisited Bradlees Department Store toy aisle for hard to find action figures in the days before the internet supplied release dates insured a healthy collection of original Tarzan novels.  
Yes…he yells.

I maintained my low opinion of the most popular of Tarzan portrayals due to my “geeky things should be serious phase.” This was when I stupidly also denied the awesomeness of Adam West and Roger Moore

As instructed by others of this unexciting minded group of fans, I thought 1984’s Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes was a “proper” Tarzan film.  Never mind that it could be kind of dull in parts, overly downbeat, made many of its own changes to the source material, and gave Tarzan a yell that was basically an amped up version of, “Rah!”

Sometime later, there was a Tarzan anniversary special on AMC, focusing on the whole history of the character.  It was mixed in the middle of a Johnny Weissmuller marathon they were running. 

That’s when I got “it” about his 1931 movie and sequels. 

Yes, the stories did not follow the Burroughs works.

Yes, the animals were mostly out of place, stock footage, bad rear projection, reused scenes, or a combination thereof.

Yes, Tarzan’s intelligence level was nowhere near his literary counterpart.

But, seeing Johnny Weissmuller sitting atop an elephant belting out THE iconic yell while leading a stampede of animals into battle, my brain immediately ignored the flaws, ignored my past prejudices, ignored the fake ears to make the Indian elephant look more Africanish and said, “That’s Tarzan.”

I made sure to tape the original six of his films, and have kept them to this day.  I’m still hard headed enough to refuse to watch any Jane except Maureen O’Sullivan with him, though, proving I’m much more loyal to women than geeks…or something.

Weissmuller’s interpretation was not the true Burroughs version of the character, but it did expand the mythology, and provide entertainment by the truckload, or elephantload in any case.  I believe it's a clear sign of my increased understanding of the importance of fun that one of my favorite Bond adventures is now one where Roger Moore did a Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan yell. 

This year's movie, while strongly following the characters and situations from the novels, acknowledges the cultural image of Tarzan instead of trying to pretend those films never happened.

A prime example (along with some impressive vine swinging which was also not created in the original stories)  was, though far more animalistic in the tones, the Tarzan yell is still three tones separated by two yodels.

Aside: Figuring that out from information in that anniversary special allowed me to practice it correctly and get it down pat.   The Disney version was a well-made, entertaining and fun film, fashioned by a group of creators who also went back to the books for much of their inspiration.  They tried all kinds of crazy ideas to create a new yell, only go back and ask Brian (Clayton) Blessed to recreate the original, since Tony Goldwyn blew his voice out already. They did excellent research on all aspects of the character and his environs, but the tones are still a bit off, sliding a little too much in the Pitfall Harry direction.   When practicing, don’t give up and only do two tones and one yodel, that’s a George of the Jungle yell.  The key is really holding a good sustain on the middle tone, but saving enough oomph to still hit the last one with gusto.

Aside inside the aside:  The "Clayton" thing can be confusing.  "Clayton" in the Disney film was extremely loosely based on William Cecil Clayton, a character in the group with Jane and her dad who first find Tarzan.  In a staggering coincidence, he's Tarzan's (John Clayton's) cousin. He's not really evil, but he is a rival for Jane, and is engaged to her by the end of Tarzan of the Apes, prompting our hero to blow off the civilized world and head back home to the jungle.  William graciously dies of a fever in the second novel to allow the classic couple to reach their happily ever after. 

While showing aspects from the books that hadn’t been highlighted before, the Disney version did go the same route as many attempts to restart a Tarzan film franchise.

I guess that first above aside wasn’t really an aside after all.  The second one- definitely- apologies for dumping the bucket again. 

Most Tarzan films start in the same place, whether they dress it up with seriousness and Rick Baker ape makeup (Greystoke), Phil Collins music and family messages (Disney) or (God help us)
Bo Derek exposing herself to a very lost orangutan in the 1981 disaster with Miles O’Keeffe. 

All of these films assumed the audience didn’t know who Tarzan was or how he came to be.

That’s foolish for two reasons:

1) Looking at only the books by Burroughs, there were twenty four Tarzan novels.  Leaving out the first one from 1912, part of its first sequel (1913’s Return of Tarzan), and the later flashback stories in Jungle Tales of Tarzan (1919) that still leaves about 85%-90% of the original source material as after Tarzan learns English and a schmear of other languages, connects with Jane, and reclaims his title.  There’s far more than just “Tarzan survives orphaning and grows up to meet his true love” to make movies from.

2) Its freakin’ Tarzan!  One of the most recognized fictional characters in all of history. The only book that has been adapted more times than his origin into a movie is Dracula.

This is where Legend of Tarzan succeeds.  It accepts that we all know who the main character is, and gives us a couple of flashbacks to cover the origin story.  The plot lines up with the later Burroughs novels and includes multiple references, but incorporates elements of real world history to iron over some questionable territory in tales of a white man honed to perfection by nature in Africa.

For those who haven’t read them, almost all of the later stories are: John Clayton is living happily in the "cultured” world when an evil, if foolish, individual crosses him in a way (frequently involving kidnapping Jane) that leads to Tarzan unleashing himself across Africa at the soon to be very unhappy, very dead, or usually very both evil and foolish individual.

With the connections to English royalty and unexplored Africa, Tarzan works best as a period piece.  This is only one of the areas where loyalty to the source material shines in this film.

Tarzan is articulate and intelligent, thinking before speaking. It’s one of the reasons he survived in the jungle, being quick on the uptake, patient and an excellent mimic.  He picks up new languages (animal and human) in DAYS!  As an English Lord, he seamlessly blends into aristocratic society, but it’s only a thin veneer covering the Lord of the Jungle.  Both sides, including the veneer dropping between them were portrayed expertly.

The capture of Jane, as per usual, is what it takes to shuck that veneer. However, she’s not a simple damsel in distress.  That’s another advantage of making stories of the established Tarzan.  Instead of a “falling in love” story, which has been done to death, this is a tale of two people already deeply in love, who work seamlessly together as partners.  Not only is Jane American (per the books, and contrary to almost every movie version) but she has complete and total faith in Tarzan, and is nearly his equal in bravery, resourcefulness and other respects.  While prisoner, she never once doubts her rescue is imminent, and the sly smile she gives her captors when the iconic yell echoes through the trees holds a trace of pity.  She’s also fully competent at surviving on her own in both worlds her husband has brought her into: the jungle and the aristocracy.

Along with his connection to Jane, there are bonds with others Tarzan is shown to have formed.  That’s an important aspect from the books as well. Only covering the origin story shows Tarzan defeating many foes to establish his place in his adopted home.  However, in those defeats, he often creates allies, whether they are with animals, native tribes, or supposedly modern individuals.

To borrow a Danny DeVito line for no reason, in Africa, if you mess with Tarzan, you mess with his whole family.  This family included the Mangani. Yes, the film goes back to Burroughs again for the fictional, far fiercer than gorillas, species of apes that Kala was a member of; raising young Tarzan after members of her own race killed his father.

The suspense from someone taking on this character on his home turf should never come from worrying that Tarzan may be defeated.  It comes from figuring out what insane combined army of native wildlife and friendly forces is going to show up to take out the bad guy troops and how Tarzan will personally and powerfully deal with their leader.

Samuel L. Jackson fulfilled a key role in this movie.  If Tarzan is done correctly, accurately, and “by the book” much of it will be silly. Believe me, I’m the last person to use “silly” as a connotation of something negative, but it is a fact.  There’s really no way around that. It’s a story of a man with strength, stamina, agility, speed, honor, intelligence, wisdom, charisma and courage above what is naturally possible, who communicates with animals, is at home in the treetops, and turns enemies to allies by being completely awesome.
That is, if they didn’t betray him to a point that he rends them apart with his bare hands.

Having Sam along for the ride to point out the goofy stuff makes it easier to accept within the story and enjoy the film for what it is:

A fun romp of edge of the seat action adventure featuring a fully developed Lord of the Jungle at the height of his powers and rule.

As a bonus, I got to find out what going to the movies with me is like for other people.

My daughter’s version of the character came from the Disney film.
This was the only one she knew, and was therefore the right one.
She thought the movie was awesome, but spent the whole time telling me which parts were “wrong.”

That’s my girl.


longbow said...

This person plagiarized your review

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx. I could see the logic to that comparison...after perhaps several more glasses of wine than that blogger used.

On a more sane note. Peter David likes this movie too. So even if you don't trust me, trust him.