Thursday, April 14, 2016
Review: "The Jungle Book"
Disney certainly has an appetite for "Jungle Book" iterations. Or at least they think we do. Lucky for them, they're right ... at least when it comes to good ones.
Beyond the cheesy 1967 animated feature, there was its (wisely) forgotten sequel, "The Jungle Book 2" in 2003; "TaleSpin," a short-lived 1990 TV spinoff; a live-action version in 1994 starring a nearly 30-year-old Jason Scott Lee as the boy Mowgli; another live-action version in 1998 that went straight to video; an animated cheapie in 2010; and another TV series that's still running.
The newest version directed by Jon Favreau ("Iron Man") is a pleasing mix of old and new elements. It uses high-end CGI to render all the animals, and the results are pretty stunning. Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, a "man-cub" abandoned in the jungle and raised by wolves, particularly fierce mother Raksha (voice by Lupita Nyong'o), with a little help from wise black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley).
The animals still talk, as they did in the books, and recite Rudyard Kipling's verse containing wisdom from the mouths of creatures. The action is fairly intense -- it was a bit scary for our 2-year-old -- and quite well-choreographed.
This is the sort of movie designed expressly for kids but entertaining enough to keep their parents engaged.
And yes, they do bust out a few iconic songs from the '67 movie, including "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You," sung by Bill Murray as the bear Baloo and Christopher Walken as the massive ape King Louie, respectively. Both end up serving as comic relief in the middle of some tense sequences.
Murray's version is actually quite charming, and in general his voice work is so emotive and spot-on that I hereby forgive him for the "Garfield" movies. Walken does a talk-singing thing that almost ends up in yodeling territory.
Scarlett Johansson also has a brief role as Kaa the mesmerizing serpent, but her best contribution is a gorgeous rendition of "Trust in Me" that plays over the end credits. Kaa actually helped Mowgli in the books, but here he's a she, and she's all bad.
The story mainly revolves around Mowgli's conflict with Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a massive Bengal tiger who deeply resents a boy living among the jungle denizens. A human wielding "the red flower" (fire) left him scarred and blind in one eye, and now the power-hungry feline wants to exact his revenge on all their kind.
Bagheera and the alpha wolf, Akela (Giancarlo Esposito), decide to return Mowgli to the human village in the name of maintaining comity between the jungle species, but their plans go awry.
Mowgli ends up under the protection of Baloo, a large and lazy bear who wants him to use his human ingenuity to get at all the wonderful honeycomb sticking to a cliff. He says it's for his hibernation, but as others point out jungle bears don't hibernate.
"It's not total hibernation, but I do take naps," he sniffs.
Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks wisely keep the preachy life-lessons stuff to a bare minimum. The only real moral of the story is that humans shouldn't try to be animals, and vice versa -- but that doesn't mean they can't get along.
Sethi is winsome and agreeable as Mowgli, but as you might guess his character is just a vantage point from which the audience can view all the amazing creatures and action.
I was never a big fan of the old Disney animated film, and most of the other cinematic and TV versions have passed me by. This new "The Jungle Book" manages to seem fresh and full of energy, and that says something all on its own.