MOVIE REVIEW: The Jungle Book

(Image: youtube.com)

"THE JUNGLE BOOK"-- 3 STARS

By employing all of the bells and whistles of today's digital effects and key frame animation, director Jon Favreau's live-action reimagining of Walt Disney's adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" sets its own stage very quickly to put adventure and peril first and foremost.  The groovy and memorable song-and-dance numbers from the original's 1967 soundtrack are forever revered as the leading component of the traditional animated classic's charm.  Those episodes of music have been trimmed from six songs to about two-and-a-half.  Ferocity steps ahead of frolic and you might ask yourself how you feel about that when you watch "The Jungle Book."

Kipling's familiar "man-cub" story is amplified to wilder thriving jungle with immense scope.  Rescued by the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised by the wolves Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o), the human boy Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) realizes with each growing day that is he is different.  Aided by his tool-using "tricks," Mowgli survives with his smarts more than his strength.  

When his existence among the wolves is perceived as an insult and threat to the ruling predator tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), Mowgli is forced to leave the pack and return to his own human people.  Bagheera takes it upon himself to lead the reluctant Mowgli away from his adoptive home before the tiger hunts him down.  Naturally, the path is beset by additional deadly obstacles, like the seductive python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and the dictator orangutan Louie (Christopher Walken), and a necessary, playful, character-building, and lovable con artist sloth bear of a diversion by the name of Baloo (Bill Murray).

It is ungodly impressive to watch "The Jungle Book" and learn that young Neel Sethi is the only organic component in each movie frame.  The young boy acted against specialized puppets from Jim Henson's Creature Shop for reference and the rest you see are streaming waves of CGI code from Weta Digital.  The immersive and detailed photo-realism of both the terrain and the animal characters surpasses Pixar's recent "The Good Dinosaur" and every pixel is pristine.  The one observable technical drawback is the coherence of the 3D photography when cinematographer Bill Pope's camera goes on the move during chases and pursuits.  The finished product is dizzy and messy during those moments, but when moving steady or standing still, the film looks every bit its glossy $175 million budget.

The sparkling animation creates an increased intensity for the carnivorous battles.  Setting the pace for that feeling is Idris Elba's fierce snarl as Shere Khan.  He turns in the best villain voice performance in quite some time.  Though bloodless, the suspense is strong enough to make this film not suitable for young children.  Keep this film to kiddos eight years and up.  As a straight action-adventure film, Favreau's "The Jungle Book" is eye-popping excitement.  Seekers of that type of attraction will appreciate this grand effort.

To others, however, the price paid in creating all that thrill out of substantial technical production value may be a slight lesser measure of heart.  Granted, the lesser heart is not the cast's fault.  It becomes very easy to root for the emerging maturity and emotion of Neel Sethi's hero.  No one on the digital microphone from the ensemble blows their assignment.  Hearing Bill Murray and Christopher Walken put their personalities and stamps on "Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You" are welcome, but fleeting, joys.  

When "The Jungle Book" does pause from its kinetic clip to break into song-and-dance, those moments seem out of place and mildly uneven to the clear goal of the rest of the film.  When the roller coaster ends and Walken returns in reprise with Scarlett Johansson's smoky rendition of "Trust in Me" during the closing credits, it feels tacked on and too-little-too-late in the charm department.  Their presence means the charm is not lost, just subdued.  Favreau set out to make a sweeping cinematic experience, not a musical, and succeeded visually to the point where maybe his film did not need the touchstone musical homages to the original.  As much as we love the old toe-tapping music, Favreau's film is strong enough to be its own confident interpretation without them.

LESSON #1: HEY KIDS, LET'S TALK ABOUT FIRE SAFETY-- Much oration is given by the wary animal leaders in the film about the dangers of the "red flower," namely (as they described) man's invention of fire.  Fire is one of the rawest forms of natural destruction around.  Be careful wielding that stuff around, kids.  You might set the forest on fire.  Right, Smokey?

LESSON #2: THE EVOLUTION OF MAN'S RESOURCEFULNESS-- Mowgli initially cannot compete with his fellow wolves for speed and power.  He begins to use brains over brawn with his "tricks" and creations to get himself out of jams, save others, and defeat his challenges.  Such resourcefulness and skill is one quality that separates us men from the animals.  Imagine giving Mowgli a pocket knife next.

LESSON #3: ASCENDING TO ONE'S RIGHTFUL PLACE-- "The Jungle Book" has always contained the often-imitated microcosm of a "coming-of-age" story in nature.  Mowgli seeks to prove his worth and rise to his place in the world as a potentially superior being.  Remember, Kipling's "The Jungle Book" came almost twenty years before Edgar Rice Burrough's "Tarzan of the Apes" added to that jungle motif and a century before "The Lion King" did the much of the same thing with a lion returning to his birthright.

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