Mark Reviews Movies

The Jungle Book (2016)


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jon Favreau

Cast: Neel Sethi, the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Lupita Nyong'o, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Brighton Rose, Garry Shandling

MPAA Rating: PG (for some sequences of scary action and peril)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 4/15/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 14, 2016

This semi-live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book mostly follows the beats of its animated predecessor (Both were produced by Disney), but the jovial tone and bright colors of the 1967 film have been replaced with a far darker, more imposing tone that matches the lushly naturalistic backgrounds and character designs. This is the animated film re-filtered through the Rudyard Kipling stories that inspired both.

The beasts of the jungle may be able to talk and to put their philosophies on living into words, verse, and song, but they are still undeniably animals, with natures they cannot escape—and likely wouldn't want to even if they could. In the film, those animals, which make up the majority of characters in the story, have been created using computer-generated visual effects that are a marvel to behold. There's little attempt or even desire to turn them into the anthropomorphized characters with which we are so familiar from the earlier film. They are beasts—wild but socialized within their own species, fierce when necessary, possessing certain motivations and attributes that could be considered "human," except for the reminder that we, too, are basically animals.

That reminder is part of the story of the film's only human character (save for the appearance of another, voiceless one during a flashback). He is Mowgli (Neel Sethi), the orphaned boy who has lived most of his life in the wild. He knows he is different. It would be impossible not to know, since he has been raised by a pack of wolves. Despite that, his adoptive mother Raksha (the compassionate voice of Lupita Nyong'o) treats him as one of her cubs. He simply grows up much slower than the rest of the litter. After reciting the laws of their kind, Mowgli howls in solidarity with the rest of the pack.

In the film's opening sequence, Mowgli is being taught to evade predators by Bagheera (the wise voice of Ben Kingsley), the panther that found him when he was just an infant—alone but not scared by the sight of a big cat approaching him. It's a dazzling sequence (although the optional 3-D renders it a bit too much of a blur—and the rest of the film a little too dark, obviously) of impromptu motion—across branches, through tree hollows, swinging from vines. The appearance of Bagheera is even more startling, as we realize the degree of verisimilitude director Jon Favreau and his team of effects artists have been able to accomplish here.

The plot of Mowgli's story remains as it has been since Kipling's day, as the ferocious tiger Shere Khan (the calmly severe voice of Idris Elba) discovers the "man cub" among the animals. The tiger determines that the boy must be killed for the good of the jungle. Shere Khan, whose face has been scarred from a past encounter with man, has a fairly justifiable reason for his goal. He and the other animals know the damage humans can bring, particularly when their creation of the hot, uncontrollable "red flower" is set loose. Bagheera decides to bring Mowgli to the human village to save him, but Shere Khan is relentless in his aim.

Every character, animal or human, has a clear motive here, whether it's Shere Khan's blinding hatred of the boy or Bagheera and Raksha's unconditional love for him. Mowgli also encounters Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson), a great snake with a seductive voice and hypnotic eyes (as well as a tale of Mowgli's past), and, later, Louie (voice of Christopher Walken), a great (as in giant) ape with ambitions to be like a human. Things turn a bit, of course, with the introduction of Baloo (voice of Bill Murray, in an inspired bit of casting), a bear that is perpetually lazy—except for when it comes to designing schemes to get others to do his work for him. Baloo tries to teach the boy about the simple requirements (Well, you know the actual phrase) to having a good life.

It's all about Mowgli finding his place—separated from his kind but discovering kindred spirits in the inherently cruel, sometimes violent world of the jungle. Family is not only genetic but also what one finds—and what finds a person—as we go through this world. A person can adapt to pretty much anything life throws at it, because humans are distinct amongst the animals to be able to and have the physical capacity to solve problems. The big conflicts define us, but so, too, does our capacity to appreciate the simple things.

It's simple stuff here, but it really always has been, from Kipling to the animated film to now. That's not a fault, although perhaps the filmmakers (especially screenwriter Justin Marks) may have felt obligated (either nostalgically or contractually) to include elements that don't quite fit into this newish vision of the story. That's especially true of the pair of songs that make a return here. They simply don't fit the reconfigured tone (although "The Bare Necessities" at least gels with the specific beats of the story at the point it appears), and since the filmmakers have gone the route of realism in the creature design, that means the staging of the musical numbers feels stiff. As a result, both songs feel crammed in for little discernible reason, save for the fact that they're recognizable.

It all works well enough, despite the hiccups and especially as a marker of where CG technology is at the moment. The Jungle Book lets us believe in the reality of these animals and then allows us to take what we want from their story.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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