Thursday, April 21, 2016

Movie Review: The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book
Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Written by: Justin Marks based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling.
Starring: Neel Sethi (Mowgli), Bill Murray (Baloo), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera), Idris Elba (Shere Khan), Lupita Nyong'o (Raksha), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa), Giancarlo Esposito (Akela), Christopher Walken (King Louie), Garry Shandling (Ikki), Brighton Rose (Gray).
No one can realistically doubt that Disney’s recent move to start re-making their classic animated films as live action films is anything other than a moneymaking scheme. Disney has beloved titles, that have instant consumer recognition – and they want to capitalize on that. They used to just re-release the films into theaters every few years, and in the Home Video era, they came up with the “Vault” – an ingenious way to get consumers to buy all their titles by making them worried they wouldn’t be able to get them later (although, another version was always just around the corner). But theatrical re-releases are rare now – and are never on a large scale, and the “vault” isn’t relevant now than everything is available online – both legally, and illegally – so Disney has to come up with a new way to cash in on their library – hence, the live action updates. So we get movies like Maleficent, which is Sleeping Beauty from the bad guys viewpoints, Cinderella, which somewhat, but not completely, updated the gender politics of the original – and in the works there is Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid (the later, sadly, no longer from director Sofia Coppola – although that is a version of that story I would kill to see). So no, there is no point in denying that on some level, these live action updates are a cynical attempt to cash-in on something consumers already love. Having said all of that, let me also say this – if in the future, all these updates are as good as Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, then I won’t care at all. The film is well made, exciting, funny, scary and just downright fun. No, I wouldn’t bring my 4 and a half year old to see it (especially after one very long night last week, where I had to calm her down because of a nightmare about snakes) – but it is a great film for slightly older kids – and their parents.
This new version of The Jungle Book certainly owes a debt to the 1967 animated film that it’s based on – but this version is significantly better. As charming as that film was, it is also rather lackadaisical in terms of its plot – it basically floats along on the goodwill generated by its characters its songs, and pretty much forgets to have much of a plot. The film works, to be sure, but it’s rather forgettable as Disney classics go (I think it’s generally expected to be the last of the Classic Disney films, before the studio entered a little bit of a creative drought that started with their next film, The Aristocats in 1970, and didn’t end until The Little Mermaid in 1989). This new version of The Jungle Book largely keeps our idea of the characters from the original – and forces in a couple of low-key versions of two of the songs – but is a much more tightly structured story. In it, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is being raised by wolves after he was found by the panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley). When the tiger, Shere Khan, finds out that a “Man Cub” is living among the animals he is angry. It’s a violation of the law of the jungle – and his scared/burned face is evidence as to why – Man Cubs become Man – and Man is dangerous. He wants Mowgli dead – and will do whatever it takes to see it done. So Bagheera and Mowgli setoff to try and get him to the Man Village – but are separated – providing Mowgli to have a series of adventures alongside the fun loving, lazy bear Baloo (Bill Murray), be scared by Kaa the Python (Scarlett Johansson), and meet a Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now inspired giant Monkey, King Louie (Christopher Walken) – among other things.
Director Jon Favreau does an excellent job with the special effects in the film. All of the characters, aside from Mowgli, are CGI creations, and yet this is one of the most impressive jobs yet in blending computer generated characters in with the rest of their surroundings. It’s seamless really, and unlike many other CGI movies, with talking animals, not even the talking effects distract from the overall effect in the film. The film is full of wonderful set pieces – the best include Mowgli’s encounter with Kaa, which genuinely frightened me, with Johansson’s wonderful vocal performance, and the great visual moment of having a flashback in the snake’s eye, the aforementioned Apocalypse Now inspired meeting with King Louie, and pretty much everything involving Shere Khan. Idris Elba’s vocal performance is the best in the movie – and although Khan is a terrifying and cruel villain – he’s also one that, you have to admit, makes logical sense. Man is a danger to all of the animals in the jungle (and the jungle itself) – and although Khan can be cruel and violent (there is a truly shocking killing committed by Khan – all the more shocking because of how sudden it is), well, he’s a tiger. What do you expect him to be? Surely, you do root for Mowgli throughout the film – and in the wonderful action climax of the film – but Khan’s argument makes far more sense than Mowgli’s.
If I were a 10 year old, then this Jungle Book would most likely be my new favorite movie. It’s darker, more violent and scarier than a lot of movie of its ilk – but not so much so that it becomes dour and off-putting (it isn’t, it must be said, for younger children – something that to their credit, Disney has made pretty clear in their advertising for the film). But it’s also a fun, funny, and rapidly paced. Like every movie – particularly any movie of this size – you can surely claim that it’s nothing but a cynical ploy to cash in on a well-known property – and to a certain extent, it is that. But it’s a hell of a lot more than that as well – a film that pays homage to the original, much beloved film – but isn’t so beholden to it that it forgets it needs to work on its own level as well. If Disney is going to continue to make all these updates and remakes of their back catalogue, at least we can hope that they’ll all be as good as this one.

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