Monkey Business



In 1963, the celebrated author Gore Vidal revisited the Tarzan novels that had entertained him in his youth.

Vidal re-read 22 books in the series and declared in an article for Esquire magazine that Edgar Rice Burroughs was an uneven writer.

However, he conceded he was one of the best authors for describing action sequences.

Vidal believed the work of Burroughs, like the novels of Mickey Spillane and Ian Fleming, catered for daydreamers looking to escape their humdrum existence.

“Until recently I assumed that most people were like myself: daydreaming ceases when the real world becomes interesting and reasonably manageable,” he mused.

“Now I am not so certain. Pondering the life and success of Burroughs leads one to believe that a good many people find their lives so unsatisfactory that they go right on year after year telling themselves stories in which they are able to dominate their environment in a way that is not possible in this overorganised society.”

Burroughs drew on the legend of Romulus and Remus for his escapist adventure about the orphaned Viscount Greystoke raised by apes in Africa after his parents’ deaths.

The legend he created had elements of the feral child fantasy of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ and was also reminiscent of the recurring figure in literature of the noble savage.

Burroughs’ books were a big hit and not surprisingly have been regularly plundered by Hollywood.

The first Tarzan film was ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ in the silent era, directed by Scott Sidney in 1918 with Elmo Lincoln in the lead. An immediate hit, Lincoln would return for two more sequels and the franchise would continue to be popular right up to the age of talking pictures.

In the age of the movie serials, the Olympic gold medal winning swimmer Johnny Weissmuller made the role of Tarzan his own in the 1930s and 40s.

Weissmuller’s Tarzan was probably the defining performance – handsome, athletic, brave and sensitive with a stirring jungle cry.

His Tarzan set the mould for future portrayals of Burrough’s creation.

His character struggled with a limited vocabulary unlike Burroughs’ articulate creation but was full of heart.

It was in W S Van Dyke’s 1932 serial ‘Tarzan, the Ape Man’, that Weissmuller first uttered the catchphrase “Me Tarzan. You Jane.”

Weissmuller would go on to make a dozen Tarzan films – six with MGM and six with RKO – but there was no doubt the popularity of the Tarzan series owed a lot to the allure of Maureen O’Sullivan’s scantily clad Jane.

There would be several movie Tarzans in the wake of Weissmuller’s departure in 1948 from his signature role but none of them would make the same impression.

NBC made a television series in the 1960s with Ron Ely in which Tarzan jetted around the world in search of adventure.

During the 1970s, Tarzan went into abeyance until John Derek revived him in 1981 on the big screen with Miles O’Keeffe in the title role and Richard Harris as James Parker hunting for a “legendary white ape”.

John Derek’s X rated version was slated by critics because it was basically a vehicle fashioned around his soft porn star wife, Bo Derek.

It earned an X rating for its nude scenes but proved popular at the box office.

Derek’s movie smoothed the path, however, for a more earnest take on Burroughs’ tale.

Fresh from the Oscar glory of ‘Chariots of Fire’, Hugh Hudson cast Christophe Lambert as Tarzan in the 1984 adaptation of Burroughs’ novels, ‘Greystoke – the Legend of Tarzan’.

Handsomely shot by cinematographer John Alcott, it featured Ralph Richardson as the eccentric Sixth Earl of Greystoke and Ian Holm as a Belgian adventure Jean d’Annot who discovers the Ape Man and brings him back to England.

Andie MacDowell featured as Jane but her Texan accent unnerved the producers so much, it had to be dubbed in post-production by Glenn Close.

Hudson’s film received mixed reviews but performed decently at the box office.

‘Greystoke’ also earned the distinction of being the first Tarzan film to land an Oscar nomination, with Ralph Richardson posthumously making the shortlist for Best Supporting Actor.

In 1998, Casper Van Dien was cast in Carl Schenkel’s B movie ‘Tarzan and the Lost City’ which tanked at the box office – the last live action outing for Burroughs’ creation on the big screen.

A year later Disney got its mits on the story with an animated feature, with Tony Goldwyn voicing the Ape Man and Minnie Driver, Glenn Close, Lance Henriksen and Brian Blessed also in the cast.

Disney’s animated version was a success and was followed by two direct to video sequels.

German and French animators have now teamed up for a motion capture version of Burroughs’ story, ‘Tarzan’ which has hit cinemas in 2D and 3D featuring a relatively unknown cast.

Directed by Reinhard Klooss, it is a rather anaemic affair with the animation looking well below the standard audiences are used to these days from the likes of Dinsey-Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky Studios and Sony Pictures Animation.

Working from a script by Klooss, Jessica Postigo and Yoni Brenner, the film tries to update Burroughs story with some environmental hokum about a rare energy source that Tarzan’s American family were trying to track down before they were killed in a helicopter crash that left him in the care of a kindly ape.

Klooss’s film is so half hearted, I couldn’t be arsed divulging any more plot details.

Suffice it to say, it is totally devoid of humour or thrills. Its performances are wooden. And the human characters look… well, a wee bit creepy. Their eyebrows waggle a lot and their motion is quite pedestrian.

In fact, anyone with a young daughter will be reminded of those God awful animated ‘Barbie’ movies on DVD designed to squeeze every pound out of pestered parents.

The humans and animals in those Barbie movies also look creepy. They move in the same way and speak in the same bland American accents as the cast in Klooss’s movie.

And the dialogue in ‘Tarzan’ is as vacuous as anything you’d hear in a Barbie movie.

Not everything is terrible – the computer animated images of the jungle are passable. It’s just the creatures that inhabit it that look false.

There’s a rather random excuse in the middle of Klooss’s movie to play Coldplay’s hit ‘Paradise’.

And if the half hearted warble of Kellan Lutz’s Tarzan is not enough, the whole dreary experience is compounded by a portentous voiceover full of fortune cookie cliches.

Hats off, though, to the film makers for managing to come up with a villain who is a dead ringer for Robin Thicke – albeit an even creepier Robin Thicke who moves like he is wading through treacle.

A live action ‘Tarzan’ for Warner Brothers is due for release in cinemas in 2016 with Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie as Tarzan and Jane.

Samuel L Jackson and Christoph Waltz will also feature in the Warner Brothers movie.

‘Tarzan’, however, has had a chequered film history.

Let’s hope director David Yates in 2016 doesn’t ape Klooss’s cack-handed approach.

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