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A new-look ‘Tarzan’ goes beyond the jungle to tell a new story

Lord Greystoke is nothing if not proper.

He drinks tea and elevates his pinky politely when he does. Most importantly, if you look into his eyes – as the close-ups of “The Legend of Tarzan” force you to do – you see something else: the melancholy of a truly civilized man.

John Clayton III may be an aristocrat and an active member of the British House of Lords. But he seems to know just how empty a distinction in society that is. (“What do you think of Western civilization?” they once asked Mahatma Gandhi. “It would be nice” he replied.)

That’s because in Lord Greystoke’s other identity, he is Tarzan, the ape man, the fabled king of the jungle who was raised by apes and learned to speak the language of the other animals.

When an American investigator looking into the vile international slave business convinces Tarzan and Jane to return to their African homeland to upend the Belgian ivory, diamond and burgeoning slave trades, Tarzan’s first official act on encountering fierce-looking full grown lionesses in the Congolese jungle is to hunker down on all fours, lower his head and nuzzle their furry cheeks, the way you might nuzzle your house cat.

Explains Jane, to their inspiring American friend (Samuel L. Jackson), “he’s known them since they were cubs.”

And so he has. When the enslaving, despoiling, continent-raping occupying Belgians are ready to bring in 20,000 troops to overrun the Congo in the name of everything vile and hideous about imperial colonialism, Tarzan is able to call on a jungle animal army to scare the bejabbers out of everyone on two legs.

There are lions and gorillas and warthogs and wildebeasts and elephants and any other creature in the neighborhood with a low opinion of those upright animals with two legs and white skin.

Trust me: you’ve never seen a Tarzan movie that goes to such lengths to present a Saturday matinee audience (whenever they happen to see it) with so many naked horrors of imperial colonialism.

That’s the main reason why I have some regard for this new “Tarzan.” It’s trying to tell a meaningful story about Africa and white civilization – one they didn’t teach in movies starring such muscle-bound lunkheads as Johnny Weissmuller, Lex Barker and Gordon Scott, three guys who might not have been able to think their way out of a lunch check at the Brown Derby, let alone the attendant despoilments of Western finance.

The first Lord Greystoke we saw in significant detail at the movies – Christopher Lambert, star of “Greystoke” by Hugh Hudson, the man who gave us “Chariots of Fire” – doesn’t change this fact: no one before this ever went this far out of the way to make a cinematic anti-colonial screed.

So I say give this movie some props.

But let’s also tell the truth, eh what?

No one’s going to go out of his way to accuse “The Legend of Tarzan” of being fun either.

Those who hunger for beefcake will get Alexander Skarsgard as a long, lean, powerful specimen when he bares his torso. All the CGI is pretty good (director David Yates directed a few Harry Potter movies). But he’s never really seen in Weissmuller’s old loincloth so that will no doubt tell you something about where this movie’s heart is (and where it’s eyes are).

Margot Robbie is, hands down, the most beautiful Jane I’ve ever seen in a Tarzan movie and considering that Weissmuller’s Jane – Maureen O’Sullivan – was her competition, that is no small distinction. Despite her pointed denials in the script, she’s not much more here than a plucky damsel in distress.

Jackson gets all the best lines and seems to be having minimal fun spraying wisecracks and political rants around, but the film seems to want to serve humanity a lot more than it wants to serve the popcorn business at the snack counter.

Christoph Waltz continues to be what he’s been since Quentin Tarantino cannily brought him to American movies: the smirking, pretentious, all-purpose Euro-villain whom you can’t wait to see in an encounter with a bullet, a stick of dynamite or the jaws of a peevish crocodile. True movie fans will recognize that he’s become the 21st century Conrad Veidt.

The CGI apes and lions and elephants take a bit of a back seat to the greedy white bipeds as do the enslaved populations meant to grease the African diamond trade.

It’s Africa 101 at the movies, then. The animals are all super cool in this movie (no Cheetah yet; “Boy” hasn’t arrived yet either for most of the way) but the way this movie is set up no one could wrest those lines away from Jackson and Waltz.

review

2.5 stars out of 4

Title: “The Legend of Tarzan”

Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz

Director: David Yates

Running time: 109 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for action violence, sensuality, and brief rude dialogue.

The Lowdown: Tarzan and Jane return to Africa to stop the slave and diamond trades.