Review: The Jungle Book
PLOT: In the Indian jungle a young boy named Mowgli is raised by a pack of wolves and a protective panther. When a villainous tiger vows to kill him, Mowgli must flee into the unknown and find his own kind.
REVIEW: Walking into Jon Favreau's THE JUNGLE BOOK, I realized quite late that it had been perhaps two decades (at least) since I last saw Disney's animated version of Rudyard Kipling's book of the same name. One of those movies that was relegated strictly to my childhood, THE JUNGLE BOOK never held a very special meaning to me; that's doubly true for the source material, which I think I read but wouldn't testify to that. That turned out to be no problem at all for viewing this new iteration of THE JUNGLE BOOK, since I was vaguely familiar with its story beats but the tale held just enough mystery to keep me thoroughly invested. Not that it matters whether or not you know the previous incarnations of the story; Favreau's film is hypnotic, enjoyable and totally immersive.
Simply on a visual level, Favreau's movie is pure magic. To think it was shot in Los Angeles is still baffling, since it looks for all the world like the landscapes of India are on display in front of us. The director establishes this world immediately and we're never anything less than convinced that we're watching a movie shot on location. Add to that the fact that many of the animals - despite their chatty natures - are also completely convincing, and you've got a truly impressive digital world that never shows its hand for a second. You can complain about the overabundance of CGI in film all you want (I sure do frequently), but there's no arguing that when it's used to bring something so vivid and beautiful to life, you have to give it the respect it deserves. (Or, more precisely, respect to the hundreds of animators and artists behind-the-scenes.) THE JUNGLE BOOK simply contains some of the best CGI in the history of film.
With a screenplay by Justin Marks that is, for all intents and purposes, inspired by the beats and nuances of the 1967 film, THE JUNGLE BOOK's story is recognizable to even those of us who don't wholly remember it. Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi, doing a more than adequate job) was abandoned in the jungle as a baby and subsequently rescued by noble panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who takes the boy to a pack of wolves so they can raise him. The pack, led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), treats the "man-cub" as one of their own, and as he grows Mowgli becomes adept in the way of surviving the jungle - though he still needs work on his escape routes from predators. Not that he has to fret too much; the jungle is in the middle of a severe drought and all the animals have agreed to a water truce, meaning they can all hang at the same pond without worrying about being savaged... except when the fearsome Shere Khan (Idris Elba) is around. The battle-scarred tiger observes the truce but has a reputation for killing indiscriminately, so his presence rightfully brings about worry. Especially once he gets a look at Mowgli and vows to kill him.
Mowgli is forced by this turn of events to flee into the jungle to find other men, the only way his life will be safe. Given chase by Khan and nearly eaten by sinister serpent Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), his time is almost up when he's saved by Baloo (Bill Murray), a genial bear who takes the boy under his wing, but mostly so the kid can procure him honey for his upcoming "hibernation". This will be the most familiar passage to anyone with a heartbeat, as Mowgli and Baloo quickly become best pals (yes, they sing "The Bare Necessities"). Mowgli's not out of the woods yet, though; he'll still have to face down the imposing King Louie (Christopher Walken), a gigantic orangutan who wants the boy to show him how to make "the red flower" (fire) and ultimately square off with Khan.
THE JUNGLE BOOK is the best of the recent spate of live-action Disney remakes, if only for succeeding as pure spectacle. It's a completely transporting experience, and that's not only thanks to the marvelous visual effects. Favreau knows how to deliver an adventure, and his set-pieces are exciting and wholly cinematic; you don't have to worry about a blinding barrage of quick cuts and indecipherable action. He also manages to carefully keep the movie existing in a plane somewhere between live-action and animation; while the world created is never unconvincing, it's just surreal enough to lend the film a sense of heightened reality. It's something to behold.
Like so many Disney tales, THE JUNGLE BOOK has splashes of real darkness amid its sunny demeanor. Shere Khan is a fearsome villain, perfectly voiced by Elba, and his ominous threats are frequently as frightening as his physical violence. (He tells a "starving baby" story to a pack of cubs that is pretty creepy stuff.) His sudden appearances are among several moments that might scare the little ones in the audience, and the movie manages to maintain a significant level of tension during its more dramatic stretches. But, as a counterbalance, when THE JUNGLE BOOK is fun, it's joyous; Mowgli's interactions with Baloo and Bagheera are consistently charming, as are the appearances of the various creatures who pop up during his travels. (It's bittersweet hearing Garry Shandling voicing a cute porcupine.) Expect to smile ear-to-ear early and often.
There are a few missteps along the way. Even though most of the voice casting is excellent (Murray, Kingsley, Elba), Christopher Walken's New York mob boss-meets-Colonel Kurtz take on King Louie doesn't quite work, and his musical number "I Wan'na Be Like You" just doesn't fit. There's also something very contrived about the finale; without spoiling anything, I'll say that Mowgli causes a huge disaster that could have major implications for the jungle, but it's swept under the rug without commentary. (This movie doesn't have to be the forum for an ecological debate, but it feels like it's about to say something significant about man's tendency to destroy nature but then it abruptly doesn't.) Overall the film is light on thought-provoking material; it's more visceral than intellectual.
And that's just fine, because when you're watching THE JUNGLE BOOK, you'll be plenty swept away. Seeing it on the big screen is a must, and it looks splendid in 3D. Sound design is top notch, as well, and John Debney's score is extremely persuasive. With this and ZOOTOPIA coming out about a month apart, Disney has made talking animals cool again. Who saw that coming?
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