– Summary –
Director : Reinhard Kloos
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Kellan Lutz, Spencer Locke, Jamie Ray Newman, Mark Deklin, Robert Capron, Joe Cappelletti, Craig Garner, Anton Zetterholm, Les Bubb.
Approx Running Time : 94 Minutes
Synopsis: The legend of Tarzan, the orphaned boy who grows up in the African jungle raised by apes, meets young hottie Jane, and defends the jungle against Clayton, the CEO of Greystoke Energies, who wants a lost, millennia-old meteor to generate power and wealth.
What we think : Throughout the entirety of this film, all I could think was one thing: when were the Phil Collins songs going to start? Tarzan’s umpteenth iteration, in animated motion-capture format, is dull, plodding, and nominally poorly animated. The humans look like bad children’s TV avatars, while the landscapes and effects are truly breathtaking, an imbalance that drags the eye out of the film’s story and into its inadequacies. Plus, there’s some kind of plot about a crashed meteor powering cities… yawn.
Lord of the apeshit.
I’m not sure entirely why Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story about a man lost in the African jungle remains as popular as it is a century after its debut, but 2013’s animated attempt isn’t gonna do it any favors. Produced in Germany, Tarzan is the first major attempt to bring the story to the screen since Disney’s 1999 effort – a seminal film which sent the millennium out in style for the studio – and, as is to be expected with “new” versions of the classic, now made in a motion capture studio. Yeah, I rolled my eyes at that too. For no matter how hard Robert Zemeckis tried, he just couldn’t quite nail performance capture on film; The Polar Express, Beowulf and his attempt at Dickens’ Christmas Carol all found fault with the “uncanny valley” scenario of the human characters in those films lacking “life” behind their eyes, something audiences generally baulk at. And it’s fair to say that the director of this film, Reinhard Kloos, isn’t a director of the caliber of Zemeckis. 2013’s Tarzan falls into the same trap (and a few others, surprisingly) of having its human characters looking a little…. off, preventing the viewer from really attaching emotionally to the film and thus rendering it disappointingly inert.
Deep in the African jungle, explorer James Porter (Les Bubb) is searching for the remnants of a famed meteorite which crashed to Earth millions of years prior, causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. The meteorite supposedly contains vast, untapped powers, making its discovery rather important. Porter is funded by wealthy industrialist John Greystoke (Mark Deklin), who has transported his wife (Jamie Ray Newman) and young son JJ (voice of Craig Garner, Anton Zetterholm, and as an adult by Kellan Lutz) to the region. After spending a great deal of time searching, Greystoke gives up, but whist trying to fly their helicopter out, crash, killing both John and his wife. This leaves JJ, who has nicknamed himself “Tarzan” – meaning “ape without fur” – abandoned in the jungle, to be cared for by female ape Kala. As Tarzan grows, he encounters Porter’s daughter Jane (Spencer Locke), who arrives for a visit with her father years later. When Jane leaves, Tarzan keeps a scarf of hers to remind himself of her. Years later again, Jane returns, with Greystoke Energies young CEO, William Clayton (Joe Cappelletti), again in search of the meteorite, although when Tarzan makes his presence known to Jane, she begins to spend more time with him in the jungle, and less time with her father and searching for the meteorite. Clayton, however, upon locating the meteorite, turns nasty, threatening to kill Tarzan and the Porters, and decimating the jungle.
With the 100th anniversary of Tarzan’s first literary appearance coming in 2012, it was little wonder another iteration of the famous story would be made into a film; it’s a shame that the result is 2013’s befuddling Tarzan, a boring, dull showcase for intense computer graphics at the expense of character development, a film laboring with a mild, G-rated action aesthetic, and an inability to render lifelike humans several years after many other films managed to achieve it successfully. Tarzan’s problems are many, most of which stem from the weird animation problem of having absolutely stunning landscapes and backdrops – the jungle sequences of this film look photo-realistic at times! – but really, really poor human-character animation. At times, some of the humans in this film look worse than poor computer game cut-scene avatars, chunky and lacking the fluidity that makes us… well, us.
Whenever any of the characters are forced to emote or “act”, the film clunks almost to a halt, as the vocals and performances often don’t match up quite right. The film mitigates this a lot by having most of Tarzan’s interactions throughout the story take place with as few words as possible, making the “star” of the film the one with the least to say. And considering the animation style’s ponderous visuals, his expressions and mannerisms aren’t quite up to the task of carrying the emotional heft the character needs. Where the film does succeed is the animation and performances of the apes, all of which look positively splendid (except for key ape Kala, who has a weird clown-vibe going on for some reason) with particular attention paid to fur and movement. Accompanying the lush jungle-scapes and vivid depictions of the meteorite, the film might have made a thoroughly captivating nature documentary, were it not for the fact that it’s actually a narrative feature rather than an ambivalent onlooker.
The story follows Disney’s version of Tarzan rather closely, at least more closely than Burroughs’ original text. Here, Clayton is the villain, Tarzan is the son of Greystoke, and Kerchack is the leader of the ape clan (until he’s killed in an early scene by Tublat, a rogue gorilla), and the early going of the story follows Disney’s template in mostly dot-point form, although some specifics, such as Tarzan’s orphaning by helicopter here, which is predicated by the fact that this film is set in modern day, result in a more viewer-friendly approach. In saying that, Tarzan is decidedly dull, a swathe of vistas and tracking shots that will make any HD display positively shine, but bring nothing emotional to the story.
One of the other problems I had with this story was the voice-over narration, a film technique that, when used properly, can provide context and plot ideas with speed and authority. Here, with a vocal delivery one approximates with metronomic ponderousness by Kellan Lutz (at least I think it’s Lutz, because neither Wikipedia, IMDb or the film itself list who the narration is by) the stately intonations seem vastly at odds with the zeal and dexterity of the accompanying visuals. Kinda like the Queen back-announcing a dance track on a local community radio station. The voice-over just comes across as overblown, rather than informative, and had they just nixed the concept originally, the film might have been the better for it.
Generally, the cast perform okay, although the script and pacing issues the film has work to the detriment of all involved. Tarzan himself is a grunting, hairless figure thanks to Lutz’s performance, although in fairness he probably wasn’t behind the design, only the voice and movement. I know the iconic look of the character has been honed by a century of depictions in all kinds of media, but would Tarzan ever look like he’s just stepped out of a Calvin Klein advertisement? Just sayin’. Spencer Locke’s Jane is spunky and sassy, as she needs to be to compete with Tarzan’s more animalistic nature, while Joe Cappelletti’s performance as Clayton is a snarling, cliched mess. The emotional weight behind Clayton’s arc is reduced to simplistic, buffoonish arrogance, a cartoon villain in a clunky cartoon film, whereas at least the film-makers try and make Tarzan and Jane feel realistic. Although, I did laugh when Jane blurted out late in the film that “she does love Tarzan” in such an earnest way as to warrant a cringe; they’d just spent five minutes cavorting in a lake accompanied by Coldplay’s “Paradise”, a more obvious song selection there has never been. Oh, and I laughed again both times Lutz’s Tarzan let out that iconic yell – it sounded more like an opera singer clearing his throat than an ape-man sounding his authority. Made me giggle.
Tarzan is a bit of a drag, really. The characters never really gel, the violence of the story is watered down to “off-screen only” status for the most part, and the wonky animation does little to stem the flow of blood across the figurative screen. The entire thing just feels flat, lacking motivation other than to showcase an admittedly impressive CG studio’s ability to render jungle landscapes with breathtaking dexterity. Otherwise, from start to finish, Tarzan is a haphazard affair that delivers few genuine surprises, almost zero empathetic characters, or even a legitimate climax… it just ends, and that’s it. For the character’s 100th anniversary, Tarzan is a disappointment in almost every aspect.