THE JUNGLE BOOK (9 out of 10) Directed by Jon Favreau; Written by Justin Marks, based on the books by Rudyard Kipling; Starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken and Garry Shandling; Rated PG for "some sequences of scary action and peril"; Running time 105 min; In wide release April 15, 2016.
Disney's "The Jungle Book" is a new instant classic. It draws from its source material perfectly and updates it with a mastery of digital animation and voice acting that is unmatched. It's pure Disney magic. It will both entertain children of all ages and dazzle adults who understand the levels of mastery necessary to pull this off.
Beyond the technical razzle-dazzle, what cements this as a new classic is simply a great story told extremely well. As much as it is a feast of eye candy, it as much a feast for the heart and mind for children and adults alike.
"The Jungle Book" tells the story of Mowgli, a "man cub" who is orphaned in the jungle and raised by the wolf pack led by Akela and Raksha, mentored by the panther Bagheera, and generally knows no other life than the jungle. When the mighty tiger Shere Khan, with a grudge against man and his ability to make the "red flower" of fire, threatens both Mowgli and his animal family, they must take him back to the man village. On the way, he is waylaid by a friendly bear, Baloo, who wants to keep Mowgli in the jungle as his friend and a helper to get honey, the python Kaa who would like to make a snack of the man cub, and King Louie, a giant orangutan who wants to learn the secrets of the red flower.
Like with most things, the journey, not the destination, is what's enjoyable. With music breaks and action sequences, we get a perfectly paced treat that gives each character their own story and opportunity to grow and learn.
The credit here must go to director Jon Favreau. Many should rightly credit Favreau for creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the first two "Iron Man" films. Perhaps even more important in understanding the ancestry of this film is Favreau's earlier childrens' movie "Zathura", on which he insisted they use only practical effects-- training that allowed him to so perfectly meld the practical and digital on "Iron Man."
On "Jungle Book" with a cast made almost entirely of digital characters, Favreau shows his mastery of this medium as well. Somehow he coaxes performances from Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley and Lupita Nyong'o as digital animals that is more "human" and moving than 99% of other films out there. He's also blessed with a cast of Oscar-worthy talent who deliver Oscar-worthy performances. . . if only the Academy awarded digital/voice-over work the way they ought to.
Anchoring all of this is the only actor who actually appears in the movie, unknown child actor Neel Sethi. He provides a fun and heartfelt way into this film for all of us.
Those expecting a simple retelling of the 1967 classic animated film will be overwhelmed by just how much more this live-action update has to offer. And those unfamiliar with it will be drawn into a beautifully rendered world of talking animals and fables of human nature, family, and rites of passage of growing up. The creative team behind this not only draws from Kipling's writings, but also smartly steal directly from Disney's pantheon of animated work-- specifically "The Lion King."
But rather than feeling like a film that only draws from the past, this Jungle Book adaptation is decidedly modern and forward-thinking. Kipling's writings (and indeed the 1967 animated version) are replete with symbols and allegory that sanitize and glorify British imperialism and the colonialism of India. For example, the animated film turned the elephants into British military figures who tromp through the jungle singing a military march full of pomp and bluster. This version returns a religious reverence to the elephants, and they provide a key moral lesson to the climax of the film.
And while I admit I miss some of the elements of the 1967 animated film, such as Col. Hathi's March or the vultures singing "That's What Friends Are For", eagle-eared listeners will hear elements of the original score throughout the film-- from the opening shots which directly use the score from the first film or an adapted version of Kaa's "Trust in Me' plays ever so softly in the background as Scarlett Johansson's giant python attempts to hypnotize young Mowgli into everlasting slumber. The film also uses adapted versions of "The Bare Necessities" with Bill Murray filling in nicely for Phil Harris and a version of "I Wanna Be Like You" sung by Christopher Walken that defies description except to say it is nothing at all like Louis Prima's.
The best thing that can be said is that while those who are huge fans of the original animated film may initially miss these elements, they are paid tribute to in the most loving way possible. It allows the film to stand on its own while still bringing along the most iconic elements of its source material.
Kids are going to love this, however, some of the sequences might be too intense for younger viewers. Idris Elba as Shere Khan is an imposing enough experience for adults. Imagine him as a tiger attacking our protagonists and think if they can handle this.
I have one tiny complaint, and it is this: see this movie in a theater and see it in 3D, but make sure you go to the best theater possible and sit in the best seat possible. The final climactic scene takes place mostly in the dark, and a lesser 3D experience will make the screen hard to see. It's unfortunate that our technology still doesn't deliver a perfect 3D experience, but it's worth it to see this in 3D.
But for all but the youngest of children and the most cynical and jaded of adults, this will delight and dazzle. "The Jungle Book" is an achievement of monumental importance pushing the limits of modern digital filmmaking and delivering a fun movie on top of it.
9 out of 10