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Overall Rating

Awesome: 12.5%
Worth A Look75%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 12.5%

1 review, 2 user ratings

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Jungle Book, The (2016)
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by Jay Seaver

"Even when it's not quite amazing, just look at it."
4 stars

What folks who hasn't cleared out of the theater by the end of the credits for this version of "The Jungle Book" snickered a bit when the line "Filmed in Downtown Los Angeles" came up, though the fact that this is nearly as much an animated film as the 1967 version from which it takes a number of cues may ultimately be what's most noteworthy about it when we talk about Disney's evolution in the future. Not that the kids in that audience worry about that much now; they got an entertaining adventure that's funny and thrilling in the proper places, and what more could they want?

It is, as per usual, the story of Mowgli (Neel Sethi), a "man-cub" found as an infant by the panther Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley) and raised by a clan of wolves. As Mowgli grows older, the tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba) is growing far less willing to let the boy live in peace, pushing him to flee to the closest human village. Moving out of his familiar environs, he will soon meet some of the jungle's other inhabitants: Hypnotic snake Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson); laid-back bear Baloo (voice of Bill Murray); and King Louie (voice of Christopher Walken), a giant orangutan who costs the humans' "red flower".

It's a bit surprising that director Jon Favreau opted to have all of the animal characters and much of the environment rendered digitally; he's said to have favored practical effects when directing Zathura and the first two Iron Man movies in part because he likes to give his cast a lot of room to interact and improvise, and is a different game when everything is added in post-production (to be truthful, what was done on-set with newcomer Neel Sethi is live-action elements to be inserted into an animated film). There is little doubt that this is the right call; the special-effects crew puts together a visually astonishing picture, not just seamless in how Mowgli is part of a seemingly-endless wilderness, but taking care that giant 3D screens will be filed but not overcrowded. The character animation is similarly excellent; the animals are photorealistic enough to bridge the uncanny valley (where effects work is just close enough that the mind rebels), but also given just enough in the way of human characteristics that a viewer can easily connect to them as people of a sort.

The film is arguably at its best in the early going, when not only are the sights new and exciting, but when the screenplay by Justin Marks also seems to be exploring. It's been a long time since I've read the original book by Rudyard Kipling, but the early scenes have a 19th-Century British feel to them; the focus on proper behavior and rigidly defined social groups is hard to miss, though Marks and Favreau do a fair job in pushing the metaphor more towards modem multiculturalism rather than colonialism. The latter can't be entirely avoided; Mowgli is a tool-user, though his propensity for invention is scorned by many animals as "tricks", and the idea that it might be time for Mowgli to leave even without the threat of Shere Khan has the film poised to be an exceptional coming-of-age adventure.

Then Baloo shows up, and the movie changes. It would have to - it's the point in The Hero's Journey when the hero loses track of his goal and is tempted by an easy life - and things like composer John Debney going for a more upbeat, jazzy soundtrack are a nice way to convey it. But where the movie up until then had held onto the traditions from which it came, Bill Murray's vocal performance as Baloo feels much more contemporary, bouncing quips off sidekicks with Anglo-American names. Maybe kids won't really know how much he sounds like Bill Murray rather than disappearing into the character the way that Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong'o, and Giancarlo Esposito do - and Christopher Walken absolutely doesn't (Elba's Shere Khan is a fantastically menacing villain; kids will just as likely remember his words as his actions) - although I kind of wonder how he would come across if the bit where Baloo and Mowgli first cross paths weren't of-screen (it implies that this bear can be dangerous). Similarly, "Bare Necessities" and "I Want to Be Like You" on the soundtrack won't exactly be reminders of someone else's tale on the material to the younger members of the audience.

Favreau and company do this sort of contemporizing fairly well, and do avoid doing much that would date the movie in a few years' time. It's necessary, in some ways; playing the story out to a happy ending would mean changing the jungle so Mowgli fits in rather than having him outgrow it. That's not so bad, as the audience will soon buy into the connection between Mowgli and hours animal friends and family. That working makes Neel Sethi's performance easy to underrate; at first, it seems like he's just being a regular kid the way children in movies often miss - his voice goes up and down, he talks fast, doesn't get sentences out as cleanly and cleverly as he might, and takes the occasional big step to catch up with larger people - it feels like bad acting, but that's how kids are. Then one remembers just how much was done against a green screen, and it looks even better.

Kids should eat it right up, and adults should at the very least be bowled over by what they see. If nothing else, it's worth a trip to the biggest/best screen in your area to see just what you can do with this sort of fable today.

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originally posted: 04/21/16 11:16:17
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User Comments

8/11/19 Kengh The excellent CG makes it better than the original. 5 stars
4/26/16 Ruth Goaz Total garbage. 1 stars
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  15-Apr-2016 (PG)
  DVD: 30-Aug-2016


  DVD: 30-Aug-2016

Directed by
  Jon Favreau

Written by
  Justin Marks

  Scarlett Johansson
  Idris Elba
  Lupita Nyong'o
  Ben Kingsley

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