April 09, 1984 12:00 PM

No movie based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories has ever been so elegantly photographed. None has been so superbly acted. No previous Tarzan film has been so serious in intent. And none has been so stodgy and lacking in charm and fun. Half the film, directed by Hugh (Chariots of Fire) Hudson, is devoted to Tarzan’s infancy, childhood and adolescence after his parents—Lord and Lady Greystoke—are shipwrecked and die on an African coast. He is raised by a tribe of chimpanzees who teach him what every young ape should know about finding grub, swinging from vines and showing affection by patting and scratching. Tarzan’s foster family, played by humans in ape outfits, is impressively simian; zoologist and chimp expert Dr. Roger Fouts was the film’s technical adviser. Star Christopher Lambert, a newcomer, mimics primate behavior convincingly. The footage John Alcott shot on location in Cameroon is gorgeous. But then Tarz encounters a Belgian explorer, played preachily by Ian Holm, another Chariots of Fire alumnus. He teaches the ape-man to talk (both English and French, no less) and convinces him to go back to Scotland. There the ape-man meets his grandfather, portrayed with wonderful dignity and sparkle by the late Sir Ralph Richardson in his last film performance. He also meets Jane, newcomer Andie MacDowell, and spends a lot of time confronting civilization’s hypocrisies. By now this is no adventure film, and it’s hard to avoid longing for one of those menaces Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan battled: a rubber crocodile he could wrestle into submission, say, or one of those lost jungle kingdoms ruled by Maria Ouspenskaya. Lambert sure can do intensity and bewilderment. He isn’t the most physically imposing Tarzan, though. And he spends too much time cradling dying creatures, from his chimp mom and dad to Richardson. Is he a lord of the jungle or an undertaker? Even the film’s ending is abrupt and emotionally flat. But then it seems an insurmountable mistake to take a beloved fantasy adventure character such as Tarzan, dissect him and use him as a vehicle in a message movie. It’s like making a psychological drama about Santa Claus. (PG)

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