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Updating the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs story for a G-rated audience raised on CGI and Adderall, writer-director Reinhard Klooss (Animals United) delivers an all new, 3D animated Tarzan whose technical wizardry cannot compensate for a middling script and a constant need to overstimulate the viewer. This German-backed, English-language reboot impresses with its vivid array of tropical flora and fauna, as well as its lifelike and colorful cast of jungle creatures. But its human characters — and that includes the Apeman himself — leave much to be desired, while a plot piling sci-fi elements onto what’s already a pretty far-fetched scenario results in an action-packed, head-pounding safari with little staying power.
Produced by the Munich-based Constantin Film and sold worldwide by Summit (which has already closed most major territories), the Teuton production marks a somewhat rare attempt by a foreign studio to develop this kind of popular franchise outside of Hollywood, with exec producer Martin Moszkowicz snatching the rights up to Burroughs’ original 1914 novel after Disney let them expire a few years back.
But whether the strategy will be profitable remains uncertain. The film performed modestly in the few territories where it was released thus far, although it won’t come out in most European countries until February or later. Yet with nothing that favorably distinguishes this version from earlier ones (the last being Disney’s 1999 animated film, which grossed upwards of $400 million worldwide), it’s hard to see Tarzan (2013) swinging high into the box office stratosphere, even it’s got enough basic appeal to find a solid viewership on the small screen, especially among tykes.
A whiplash opening — featuring a giant meteorite striking the Earth and wiping out the dinosaurs, an 1980’s-set expedition that ends with said meteorite causing an ecological disaster and several deaths, as well as a gruesome fight pitting a clan of giant apes against a vicious newcomer — packs about as much as it can into ten-odd minutes, leaving one wondering where the film could possibly go next.
Thankfully things slow down, if only slightly, when we pick up the young son of millionaire John Greystoke (Mark Deklin), who’s left abandoned in the jungle when his dad and mom (Jaime Ray Newman) die in a helicopter crash, again provoked by the meteorite (not to mention some highly irresponsible parenting). But he quickly finds solace in the arms of Kala, a friendly mother ape who takes Tarzan — as he calls himself — into her home as a replacement for her own, recently expired child.
While it’s hardly credible that the young boy so quickly adapts to his surroundings, the film leaves little time for contemplation as it zips ahead to cover Tarzan first as an adolescent (Anton Zetterholm), and then as a full-fledged adult (Kellan Lutz) swinging from vine to vine with incredible ease. These sequences provide the best of what Klooss has to offer here, combining motion capture performances with CG animals and backdrops that are strikingly rendered, particularly the various simian characters (whose movements were choreographed by Greystoke‘s Peter Elliot) and abundance of gorgeous tropical landscapes.
Yet it seems that a lot more time was spent making every hair on Tarzan’s head look impressively real, than in crafting a story that evolves much beyond a third-grade reading level.
Back in the present, the Greystoke corporation has been taken over by an evil profiteer (Trevor St. John) whose goal is to find the lost meteorite and harness its power, thus becoming the world leader in extraterrestrial energy. To do so, he dupes sassy ecologist Jane Porter (Spencer Locke) and her explorer dad (Les Bubb) into a jungle expedition that is quickly waylaid by Tarzan and his band of merry apes, until good and bad guys wind up duking it out in a variety of settings, including, once again, the meteorite.
All of this feels awfully simplistic, like a 10-minute cartoon sketch bloated into a full-length movie, and one that’s backed by an over-explanatory voiceover that can sometimes sound awkward. (Example: “The next morning, nature had calmed down.”) And while the obligatory “me Tarzan, you Jane” romance has its moments, with Lutz (straight off of The Legend of Hercules) and Locke (from the Resident Evil series) showing snippets of chemistry, it plays as broadly one-dimensional as something you can find on the back of a cereal box.
Leaving the sound forever turned up to the max — this was the first German superproduction mixed for Dolby Atmos — and backed by a score from David Newman (Ice Age) that hits every thunderous note twice-over, Tarzan desperately tries to keep us hooked at every moment, ultimately trusting far less in our intelligence than in our primal — or is primate? — need to go along for the ride.
Production companies: Constantin Film
Cast: Kellan Lutz, Spencer Locke, Trevor St. John, Les Bubb, Mark Deklin, Jaime Ray Newman, Anton Zetterholm
Director, screenwriter: Reinhard Klooss, based on the book Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Producers: Reinhard Klooss, Robert Kulzer
Executive producer: Martin Moszkowicz
Director of photography: Markus Eckert
Production designer: Henning Ahlers
Music: David Newman
Editor: Alexander Dittner
Animation supervisors: Robert Kuczera, Benedikt Niemann, Jurgen Richter, Nicolai Tuma
Sales agent: Summit Entertainment
No rating, 94 minutes
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