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There's a reason why superhero movies, fantasy flicks, and other nerd-centric genres are as popular now as they've ever been. After being relegated to cheap-looking distractions for children for so long, the technology and writing have evolved to the point that these stories can be as incredible on the big screen as they deserve to be. But taking fantastic creations like towering robots and caped crimefighters seriously isn't an entirely recent notion, as evidenced by 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. A mere three years prior, Bo Derek did for Edgar Rice Burroughs' jungle man what Klinton Spilsbury did for the Lone Ranger, so hopes of a respectable depiction of the character were at an all-time low. But that's just what Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson did with Greystoke, a handsomely-mounted -- if terribly stiff at times -- production that jests not once at its protagonist's expense.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Lord and Lady Clayton set out from their sprawling Scottish estate to do good in the world. Unfortunately, fate waylaid them in West Africa, where their untamed surroundings soon claimed them as victims. But upon being found by a tribe of apes, their infant son John was adopted into their fold, growing up wild and virtually devoid of human contact for years. It's not until he's a young man (portrayed by Christopher Lambert) that he encounters Capitaine D'Arnot (Ian Holm), who educates him in the English language before bringing him to civilization. John's grandfather (Ralph Richardson) and the fetching Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell) welcome him with open arms, but the feral man has trouble adjusting to this strange new world, struggling with the choice of continuing the Clayton legacy or staying true to his animalistic upbringing.

Tarzan has been brought to the screen in countless adaptations, many of which have their own individual charms. The Johnny Weissmuller movies are still fun matinee adventures, and Disney's 1999 version features some of the most exhilarating sequences they've ever done. But Greystoke is the only one I can think of that approaches its premise with true awe. The first hour or so is amazing stuff, bringing to mind something like Quest for Fire in how the movie captures John coming into his own as king of the jungle with grunts and screeches over spoken dialogue. In fact, I really wish that Greystoke had continued down this path and ended with seeing man for the first time, rather than run into Holm's Belgian savior halfway through and settle its plot into a less artistically-daring groove. It isn't even a badly-constructed story or without conflict, but Hudson builds such a fasciating world out of the wild, it's just not as interesting when snooty, high society Brits take the place of bloodthirsty beasts.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
Greystoke's excellent production design is an enormous help in pushing its legitimacy as a serious drama. The jungle sections are a near-seamless blend of sets and location shots from Cameroon, Albert Whitlock's glass art enhances the scope and reach of Tarzan's domain even more, and Rick Baker's make-up work on the primates is nothing short of stellar. The acrobats inhabiting Baker's ape suits add further authenticity, which in turn extends to the actors playing John/Tarzan at various stages of his life. Lambert turns in a very expressive performance in his first English-language film, conveying authority when he's romping through the jungle and sorrow when he finds he cannot adapt to the world of his real parents. Richardson (who died shortly after production) effectively tugs at ye olde heartstrings as John's eccentric grandfather, and while being dubbed over by Glenn Close makes it hard to fully gauge her performance, a young MacDowell displays grace and poise as the woman whose growing affection for John may unfortunately be doomed.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
Video
The Warner Archive Collection's Greystoke transfer has the occasional issue or two, but it's an overall solid piece of work that brings out the beauty that Hudson intended. With the 1080p, 2.40 : 1 transfer, some of the tricks the production team used to make the movie appear bigger (particularly the matte work) are a bit more obvious but are impressive to behold anyway. The contrast between the African jungle's greens and the browns of Scotland in the fall is especially noteworthy. Neither environment looks overtly-stylized but nice and natural, a great compliment considering how much of the picture was shot on sets. At one point, I mistook some fluttering birds onscreen for flies in my room, so make of that what you will.

Audio
Greystoke arrives with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack in English only. There are no major hiccups to speak of, as the sound remains consistently solid throughout. The original score by John Scott is booming when action heats up and evocatively romantic in the downtime. The speakers teem with the hoots, hollers, and tittering of wildlife during the Africa scenes, which again is a drastic about-face from the hollow calmness of those scenes taking place at the Clayton estate. The sporadic narration stands out in particular, dominating the soundtrack no matter what events are otherwise playing out on the screen.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
Extras
Both of the Greystoke Blu-ray's extras have been ported over from the original Warner Bros. standard DVD release:

-Feature commentary by director Hugh Hudson and associate producer Garth Thomas. This is a very typical commentary track, with Hudson and Thomas sharing a good number of anecdotes and facts about the production. There's some fun trivia here and there (such as when Hudson points out that some real-life aristocrats and their servants traded places during the filming of an upper-crust dinner scene), but it's not the liveliest track I've ever heard, and I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that the pair's voices weren't so similar, I forgot who was who much of the time. However, curiously absent is any mention of MacDowell being dubbed over by Close or the circumstances that led co-screenwriter Robert Towne to adopt a pseudonym (only to be nominated for an Oscar in the end).

-The film's theatrical trailer, in standard definition.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
Overall
Greystoke is a well-polished disc that I can only recommend based on how much the film itself means to you. Hudson certainly succeeded in delivering a solemn character study in the guise of a jungle adventure film, casting camp and cheese to the side in favor of an earnest effort at deciphering what someone in Tarzan's position would be thinking. But as respectful as the second half is, it simply doesn't carry the wonder and mystery that the first act embraced to great effect. Still, I appreciated Greystoke more on this go-around than my inaugural DVD viewing a couple years ago, and if your memories of the picture are fond, chances are that they'll hold up when you pop in this slicked-up release.

* Editor Note: I couldn't find very many appropriately framed stills from this movie, so it's rather obvious that the images on this page do not represent the Blu-ray image quality.


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