Legend of Tarzan: Scott Mendelson’s Commentary on Forbes Provides Food For Thought

A1, Legend of Tarzan (Movie), Tarzan of the Apes, The Tarzan Files

Scott Mendelson is one of the more astute and fair-minded observers out there.   His work on John Carter was some of the best I came across during that episode — particularly “Revisiting the John Carter Marketing Debacle.

Today, in the midst of the scramble to view and react to the dump of stills, poster, and trailer all in one 24 hour period, Scott managed to put out some meaningful commentary and now that things have quieted down slightly, I encourage you to read it.

Mendelson does a good job of summarizing the conventional wisdom in Hollywood concerning Tarzan — and that “wisdom” is that WB is slightly daft for investing in two would-be franchise starters in Tarzan and King Arthur in spite of the perception that: “Both are would-be franchise starters which arbitrarily attempt to fashion an actioin franchise based on a somewhat well-known story purely because it’s a somewhat well-known story.”   Painful as it may to read for those of us who have hopes for the movie — it’s pretty much what most of Hollywood is thinking.  And most of Hollywood is not usually wrong. Sometimes, yes.  But not usually. So this kind of thinking is not to be dismissed.

He goes on to say that, against that mentality, he saw some positive things today:

First and foremost, to my surprise, this is not an origin story. You’d barely know it from the trailer which emphasizes his origins and mostly shows our hero in his “natural habitat,” but this film takes place after Tarzan has been raised by apes and after he left Africa for London. We don’t have to see young Tarzan get raised by apes and come to terms with his humanity while he meets and falls for Jane and battle human villains. No, this one takes place long after that story with a “civilized” Tarzan lured back from London to Africa and ensnared in new perils and adventures.

So that’s a notch in the “plus” column right there, since we don’t have to go through the origin tropes nor are we being forced to see “the story before the story you thought you knew” schtick that felled Pan and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. earlier this year. The other thing is that they have surrounded Alexander Skarsgard (because the kids love Melancholia) with a decent supporting cast, with potential added value elements in Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, and Christoph Waltz. None of them are “stars,” but all are media-friendly actors and Sam Jackson is invaluable as an added-value element.

 I completely agree with this and have pretty much the same reaction — somebody was paying attention, trying to fashino this into something that could work, and not engaging in an unrestrained ego adventure like a certain other well known Edgar Rice Burroughs property that achieved a Pan-like result and shall remain nameless here.
Now having bent over backward to be fair, and with the acknowledgment that this trailer looks relatively entertaining, I still think it’s absolutely insane that Rat-Pac Dune Entertainment, Village Roadshow, Jerry Weintraub Productions, and Dark Horse Productions sunk $180 million into a live-action Tarzan movie. Now I get that it costs a lot of money to build two worlds as well as one family (been sitting on that joke for months), but this is the kind of mega-budget production that has no plausible chance of making its money back unless it’s spectacularly good and connects with audiences on a primal level. And if it’s merely okay, we’re looking at (at best) another Fantastic Four and at worst another Pan.
Okay.  Here’s where my “hope springs eternal” self can’t quite buy in.  Fantastic Four?  For reference, Fantastic Four did $56M domestically and $111 globally.  And that’s the upside? I’m not ready to concede that . . . . but as ERB fans get excited about the initial buzz (which at least is much, much better than the reaction to the initial push for John Carter) …. it’s important to keep in mind this kind of thoughtful and reasonably impartial perspective.  Over the next days and weeks, there will be an opportunity to monitor the buzz and see whether there is enough positivity to cause observers like Mendelson to move the ceiling up.   We’ll see.


  • Mendelson’s commentary was interesting and his major points are worth thinking about. Thanks for the reference. However, I did notice that he seems to think the Legend of Tarzan is directed at kids. I got the opposite impression while viewing the trailer. It seems the target audience is more likely to be in the teenager and up range( perhaps as far up as the 30-40 range) Also,he thinks the opening is July 6 when it is July 1. Further, he makes a sarcastic comment about Skarsgard as the lead by referencing his turn in the artsy Melancholia to stress the idea that Skarsgard is an unknown. He doesn’t mention True Blood or Generation Kill which are not movies but they did reach a lot of viewers,certainly more than Melancholia. Even his other Indie films probably had a greater viewership than Melancholia and demonstrate his versatility as an actor.These are relatively minor points but they do point to a lack of research and knowledge about this particular film and about its titular lead.

    He makes a point about the risky nature of using a non movie star lead in an attempt to start two new franchises as if such an attempt were rare and almost always doomed to failure. I see just the opposite happening. Chris Pratt was not a movie star before Guardians of the Galsxy, Nor was Chris Hemsworth before Thor, Chris Evans before Captain America, Henry Cavill before Superman, Channing Tatum before 21 Jump Street and then Magic Mike, Chris Pine before Star Trek. We are at a point in Hollywood’s timeline when the next generation of Movie Stars are emergiing and There are not too many of them. there are not enough. We need more and to get more,obviously we need to give them a chance to to star as the lead. I see lot of on line commentary at various sites saying that people are getting tired of seeing the same male leads over and over and over. They are questioning Hollywood’s lack of imagination and creativity because not only do they insist on recycling,rebooting and reimagining older properties ( point taken aboutvTarzan and King Arthur) but they insist on doing the same with their casting. To his credit Mendelson does wonder exactly who would have been appropriate from the short list of Movie Stars for the role of Tarzan. He came up with Tatum Channing, which kind of makes my point about the over use of certain movie stars. Channing would have been unsuitable for Yates vision of Tarzan as he wanted a longer,leaner, more gracefully athletic frame and muscle structure for his Tarzan. So, he chose Skarsgard and surrounded him with known stars.

    On top of all of this, add to it the fact that most franchises demand at least a 3 movie commitment from their titular lead which lasts on an average of 6 years. As with Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth,actors want out after that period of time for many reasons. At the top of the list is that they want to move on to other projects because they have established themselves as movie stars and they are getting lots of good offers. Franchises take a lot of time out of an actor’s life( Chris Evans mentioned it was about 1 1/2 years when he totaled everything that was involved requiring him to be available. Then there is the old Hollywood haunt of being typecast if an actor stays too long in a given role without doing a variety of roles showing his versatility. There is also the regime’s these actors have to go on ( Skarsgard mentions 4 months of not seeing family or friends) just to obtain the proper physique added to which is the choreographic training involved in most action hero roles all of which is grueling and exhausting and after 6 years it gets tiresome. The point being that the actors who are already leading their franchises will most likely want out at the end of their contracts which means new stars will have to be created from actors such as Skarsgard and Hunman that although not ” movie” stars yet have an existing fan base and have shown that they are capable of becoming ” stars”.

    Mendelson mentions Pan and the Man From Uncle debacles both of which I would point out had well known movie stars in key roles.The Man from Uncle had Henry Cavill and Alicia Vikander( Army Hammer less so) and Pan had Hugh Jackman and Rooney Mara ( Garret Hedlund less so). I would like to add Jupiter Rising that had Channing Tatum, an established so called ” movie star” in the lead with Eddie Redmayne, Mila Kunis and Sean Bean. That movie flopped in spite of it’s all star cast. My point is that too many reviewers,prognosticators and analysts place way too much emphasis on the movie star element of a given movie or franchise as key to its ultimate success when reality does not bare them out. Guardians of the Galaxy was a mega hit with virtually no ” star” power and Jupiter Rising laden with ” stars” fell from the sky.

    As far as making movies as start up franchises that the public is begging to see,I don’t recall the public begging to see yet another Superman,Spiderman or Batman but they got them anyhow. Nor do I recall them clamoring for Thor, The Hulk, Captain America or Gaurdians of the Galaxy. They had no idea they wanted Pirates of the Caribean when it first started either. It’s called Marketing and selling it to the public. Whether it be a franchise, a stand alone film or new movie stars ,such as the two virtually unknown leads in the new Star Wars film. Hollywood sells it and them to the public. Sometimes they win and sometimes they loose. They keep looking for that winning formula which will allow them to win every time and they clearly haven’t got a clue. Maybe it’s because movie making is not a science but an art and when all the proper elements are there ( director,producer,script, cast, cinematography ,marketing ) and mixed together just right you have a smash hit and if they are off even if just each one is a little off ,the movie tanks ( at least in terms of profitability ) For me,if I can’t engage with the story or the characters it’s all over. If I can,I don’t care who the director,producers actors or script writers are. I care about the experience,even when I had no idea I wanted it in the first place( Star Wars( 1977) ,Indiana Jones,Batman Begins, Gairdians of the Galaxy )

  • Thanks for your reply. I agree with your more nuanced statement, and that some restraints on Stanton might have improved the film (although I still lay the white ape’s share of the blame at the feet of Disney marketing). At any rate, the Tarzan trailer has me intrigued, and looking forward to finally reading “Tarzan of the Apes” for the first time just as I did “A Princess of Mars.”

  • Michael, your point about my comment on John Carter is fair. I was writing hurriedly and that’s an overstatement. I didn’t mean so much in terms of the quality of the film, but rather in the series of decisions that were unrestrained — budget, casting choices, thing that could have made it more marketable. It was an “unrestrained ego adventure” in the sense that Stanton didn’t have any check on him…no one said whoa, that’s too expensive, it doesn’t make sense; or hey, are you sure Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins are the best choices for a movie that’s going to cost this much? What about some ofthe other roles? Tarzan has been much more restrained that way…….

    But Im going to fix that part of the post, because it’s unclear and too sweeping a statement, and I appreciate you pointing it out to me.

  • Thanks for pointing me to the Forbes piece. In my own small contribution of the scramble to comment, over at The Sci-Fi Christian (http://bit.ly/1jQs6eI), I had no idea this was not an origin story. The trailer certainly has plenty of origin-like footage in it. They might want to rethink the marketing before the next one; a non-origin story could be a real selling point, but if the potentially interested but uninitiated – folk like me – think, “Oh, another Tarzan movie, we’ve seen it all before,” then there could be the makings of another ERB box office flop.

    Your reference to Stanton’s JOHN CARTER felt, to me, like unnecessary piling on at this late date. I only came to any interest in reading ERB through that movie, and I think it has too many of its own merits to be dismissed as an “unrestrained ego adventure.” I interpret your comments to mean you’ve significantly soured on it, and that this forum isn’t really a safe place for its admirers, as it once was.

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