11 March 2013

On the One Year Anniversary of John Carter, Let’s Look Forward to a New Tarzan Movie

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

[Update: Damn, appears this isn’t happening. Warner Bros. is pulling the plug.]

Speaking of Tarzan movies, did you know that a new live-action film is gearing up? Perhaps not, since it has been “bubbling under” in entertainment news and only in the last few months started to reach a boil people might notice, but yeah—it’s a thing. Thinking over the progress toward another adventure of the Lord of the Jungle—who is 101 years old this October—helps me cope with another anniversary, this one only a year old. It’s a bittersweet memory, but let me go over it a moment before returning to Tarzan.

Over the weekend, Disney released a new take on a fantasy franchise more than a century old: Oz, The Great and Powerful, director Sam Raimi’s prequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (as well as its somewhat famous 1939 film adaptation). Although Oz boasts a huge price tag of $215 million, the opening weekend take of $80 million in the U.S. is strong sign of success.

And, unfortunately, this is a reminder of what happened with the film Disney released exactly one year ago this same weekend: John Carter of Mars (the film’s on-screen title at the end, but called John Carter on promotional materials). The $250 million adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s hundred-year-old planetary fantasy A Princess of Mars opened to $30 million and immediate declarations of Epic Flop-dom.

John Carter of Mars was not the biggest flop in history—but the media hopped on that story and rode with it. In fact, they were on board the flop story more than year before the film came out. How John Carter of Mars got kneecapped through terrible marketing, social media misfires, false preconceptions, and the power shifts at Disney is a lengthy tale. I wrote a bit about the marketing bungles after the film came out, and readers who want a book-length version of this story should dip into John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood by Michael D. Sellers, one of many fans who fought to get grassroots support for the film moving.

But even if John Carter of Mars wasn’t the “Biggest Flop Ever!” it was a financial disappointment that stung ERB fans such as me because we thought it was a pretty darn good film to come out of our beloved book series. The people who got to the theaters to see it generally agreed with our positive opinion. Now that the film is on home video (the Blu-ray and DVD came out in August), more viewers have come to appreciate this live-action take on a groundbreaking novel. Perhaps the cult status will kick in, although so far I haven’t seen it.

I re-watched the film in its entirety this weekend, the first time I’ve done that since it was in theaters. I expected to find myself more critical of it with distance, but found I enjoyed the film even more now. Yes, I can see the faults—mostly structural issues and parts of Taylor Kitsch’s performance—and see them with greater clarity. But what works about the film only seems to get better when savored. Maybe that cult following is going to happen after all. As for whether this means we’ll see The Gods of Mars on screen… chances still not high on that.

But it still came as shock that after a big studio bungle with an Edgar Rice Burroughs property that Hollywood wanted to leap back into ERB’s worlds with a new Tarzan film. In November 2012, Warner Bros. announced that their long-discussed Tarzan project with producer Jerry Weintraub now had a director: David Yates, responsible for the last batch of Harry Potter films.

Attaching a director never guarantees a film is an absolute “go” project. (Oh, I mourn for At the Mountains of Madness!) But Yates is a powerful player in the industry with a couple big-budget franchise hits behind him—films that got praise from franchise fans as well—so the chances for Tarzan the Untitled getting the green light tripled when Warner Bros. signed him. Immediately, numerous young actors’ names were hurled around as choices to get in a loincloth and swing on vines. Warner Bros. was now officially enthusiastic after years of delay.

It wasn’t until last week, however, that a bit of news arrived that gave me the powerful sense that, yes, this was really going to happen. The rumor came from numerous sources: Jessica Chastain to play Jane. Chastain appeared in every movie made during the last two years, but right now she’s riding on acclaim for her role in Zero Dark Thirty, which for my money was the Best Actress performance of 2012. Chastain feels classy and right for the part, not simply a “model of the moment” plucked out of a bin for a film just going through the motions. If it turns out that Chastain is playing Jane Clayton-Porter, than I don’t think it will matter much who plays Tarzan.

Okay, of course it will matter… but it will be more likely the correct choice for the part if Chastain is the type of actress getting eyed for the female lead. The actor who has the biggest buzz around him right now to play Tarzan is Alexander Skarsgård. Skarsgård hasn’t had a breakout movie role yet, no doubt held back by producers who can’t type the character “å” on their keyboards, but has established himself on television with True Blood. The other actors that Yates announced for consideration include Henry Cavill, Charlie Hunnam, and Tom Hardy. Because of course Tom Hardy. But Skarsgård is the front-runner according to Variety, and he’s a solid choice: Tarzan needs to be lithe and tough, and Skarsgård can pull it off.

Oh, Samuel L. Jackson is in the mix here as well. It isn’t a Nick Fury crossover, although Marvel has published Tarzan comics before.

Another sign of Warner Bros. getting serious about Tarzan the Untitled: the film will be part of the company’s new deal with IMAX and get released in that format. Warners wants Tarzan to swing big. This isn’t going to be a $20 million quickie like 1998’s Tarzan and the Lost City.

Although it feels strange to have a new ERB film happen so close to the financial failure of John Carter, the timing for a return of Tarzan is near-perfect. The character is fresh for a re-introduction to the cinema-going world. Disney’s 1999 animated film was a hit, but it lives in that particular Disney setting set apart from other properties. That’s “Disney’s Tarzan,” and the public is ready for a new flesh-and-blood one.

So with a new Tarzan film looking about 85% likely at this point, at least according to the guys I know down at the track, what kind of film will we get? Apparently it will be Tarzan: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Thankfully, someone at Warner Bros. realized that audiences are sick of origin stories, and since we all know the deal with Tarzan, they are skipping the front material and hopping right into espionage adventure. The story from writers John August, Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, and Adam Cozad has Tarzan already living among civilization. He returns to his birthplace of Africa on an assignment from Queen Victoria to enter the Congo and investigate the vile doings of a warlord. The Ape Man teams up with Samuel L. Jackson, and hopefully the full-blooded ERB Tarzan—who kills jungle warmongers real good—gets into some savage simian fury. The storyline sounds like it borrows elements from two early ERB novels, The Return of Tarzan (Tarzan as world-traveling adventurer) and Tarzan the Untamed (a violent colonial war tale). It reads like a story Burroughs might have written in the ‘teens, and it means seeing a Tarzan adept at both city and wilderness life, no doubt kicking butt in both.

The proposed plot also has similarities to the “Tarzan 007” style of Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, the 1966 film starring Mike Henry that continued the “New Look” film Tarzan introduced in 1959 in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure. Now I’m definitely committed to bringing you a manufacture-on-demand DVD review of that, and not just because Fritz Leiber wrote the novelization.

But… will Cheetah the Chimp be in it? How much business will Warners lose from fan protests if Cheetah from the Weismuller films doesn’t show up?