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April 15, 2016

‘Jungle Book’ Does Justice To Disney Animated Classic

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Written by: Gregg "Wonderllama" Snider
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Disney pulls off several neat tricks in the most recent adaptation of The Jungle Book. It combines several parts of Rudyard Kipling’s original stories into a cohesive story. It pays homage to the feel of the classic 1967 animated movie, while updating it for a 2016 audience. It’s fun, emotional, and absolutely gorgeous. Violence is soft-focus, but it only partially pulls its punches in some essential spots. Most importantly for Disney, it largely hits that magical sweet-spot usually owned by Pixar: it entertains kids and adults without pandering to either.

Mowgli, the perfectly cast newcomer Neel Sethi, has been raised by a pack of wolves after being found in the jungle by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). During a bad drought, when all the animals peacefully gather at the remaining watering-hole, the wicked, fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) catches Mowgli’s scent. For reasons that are revealed by the titanic, hypnotic python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), Shere Khan despises Mowgli, and demands the wolf pack give him the man-cub to kill. When they refuse, Shere Khan grudgingly departs, but makes it clear he’ll be back for Mowgli when the drought ends. To avoid bringing the wrath of Shere Khan (sorry) on his pack, Mowgli leaves the jungle with Bagheera, heading for the man village where Mowgli can be safe. En route, he has a run-in with Shere Khan, endures massive mudslides, befriends Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), escapes from a temple run by a power-mad orangutan, and learns to embrace his human nature to save his friends and his home.

After his success working as either director, producer, or both on blockbusters like the Iron Man trilogy and The Avengers, Disney trusted Jon Favreau to direct and produce The Jungle Book. He’s adept at both dramatic set-pieces and quiet moments. He pulls off the tricky balancing act of creating action sequences that are fast-moving and thrilling but aren’t too violent or too scary for a PG rating. He has an eye for sweeping scenery and majestic wildlife. If David Attenborough made animated action-adventure movies, they would look a lot like this. Be sure to see it in 3D; the visuals are stunning, with incredible layered depth-of-field effects. It was like watching a continuous reel of View-Master cels.

jumgle-book-bagheeraWith a few notable exceptions, the rogues gallery of Avengers alumni and nerd-favorite actors are superb. Idris Elba (Thor) voices Shere Khan with hushed, brutal menace. Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3) is every bit the genteel senpai, a four-legged Alfred. Lupita Nyong’o (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) are wonderful as Mowgli’s adoptive wolf parents, protective and caring.

Alas, some of the voice actors don’t work as well. Bill Murray’s Baloo is fun; the kids in the audience loved him, howling at his antics and jokes. His performance would have been wonderful if Favreau were remaking the cartoon version. His 2016 vernacular seems grating and out of place. Scarlett Johansson doesn’t quite have the mellifluous, honeyed tones to project the seductive menace Kaa radiates. On paper, the actor who voiced King Louie should have been perfect. On screen, his accent, and his instantly-recognizable vocal tics and mannerisms, pulled me out of the scene entirely. I won’t name him to avoid spoilers. I will say that film buffs will instantly recognize the iconic character homage: from the shadowy reveal scene in the jungle temple to the way he rubs his head as he emerges, King Louie is Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now.

I was curious whether some scenes — Mowgli climbing a tree or washing in a stream — were live or CGI. The closing credits settled that: “filmed in downtown L.A.” The entire movie was shot on green screen. Mowgli is the only human character; every animal is CGI, as is every mangrove swamp, banyan tree and engorged river. It all looks impeccably real and realistic. Even talking animals — one of my pet peeves — are done well enough that the dreaded uncanny valley is rarely a factor. Neel Sethi is an adorable moppet. Knowing this is his first major role, and that he performed his scenes on a green screen with reference puppets and motion-capture actors, makes his performance even more notable.

At times, it seemed that Favreau was allowed to make the sweeping epic he envisioned only if he squeezed in some by-the-book Disney material. Several scenes felt like a mid-level Dreamworks director took over and shoe-horned in jokes that, while funny, didn’t fit the style of the movie. Most notably out of place are the two musical numbers, “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You.” Both are repurposed from the 1967 animated movie. Both are amusing kid-pleasers, but they seemed like a forced effort to tie in the older Disney movie, and to sell the soundtrack.

Thankfully, The Jungle Book is rated PG. Much of the emotional impact would have been lost if it were rated G. I would caution parents that a few scenes might be too vivid for really young kids. I can’t be too specific without spoilers, but there are some graphic fight scenes and more than one death, though like many deaths in Disney movies, they are at a slight remove and not overtly violent.
In an age of sequels and remakes, The Jungle Book feels fresh and original, even though it’s been adapted numerous times. It’s an amazing visual treat. Parents will enjoy it alongside their kids, as will Disney fans of all ages.

The Jungle Book: Grade: B+

About the Author

Gregg "Wonderllama" Snider



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