Friday, April 15, 2016

Disney’s revamped ‘Jungle Book’ is beautifully realized take of Kipling’s classic

By Steve Crum
Director-producer Jon Favreau has created a stunning retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s classic adventure tale, The Jungle Book. From seamless CGI effects to the impressive debut of 12 year-old New Yorker, Neel Sethi, the story has never been more captivating. 
Favreau’s Jungle Book works as homage to Zoltan Korda’s 1942 film that starred Sabu, Disney’s near classic 1967 animated film, and to Kipling’s original 19th Century writings. In fact, The Jungle Book has been a sporadic Disney franchise since 1967 with two minor versions released in 1994 and 2003—one animated, and one live action. This 2016 version combines live action with computer animation. 
It is savvy to speculate this take will be a huge box office hit with the family market. The Disney folks have already given Favreau the go-ahead for a sequel. 
To justify all this praise, let us begin with a definitive narrative spoken by Ben Kingsley, who also voices a major character, the black panther Bagheera. Kingsley is among a brilliantly cast voice ensemble that includes Bill Murray as the bear Baloo; Idris Elba as the villainous Bengal Tiger Shere Khan; Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha, Mowgli’s surrogate wolf mom); Scarlett Johansson (the humongous python, Kaa); and Christopher Walken (King Louie, the ape leader).  The animal characters are realistically animated. Mowgli is live action. 
For either the Kipling or classic Disney uninformed, the central character is Mowgli, a human rescued  as a baby in the jungle by Bagheera and brought to a wolf pack to be raised by Akela. As he grows into adolescence, Mowgli is referenced as a “man-cub” by the animal kingdom. (For purposes of audience clarity, every creature speaks English.) 
When Shere Khan begins to threaten Mowgli’s life, Bagheera decides it is time to escort the man-cub to the safety of his fellow humans, and away from his adopted wolf family. Along the way there are constant threats by the bloodthirsty tiger. 
During the trek, Mowgli encounters new animal friends…and enemies. The good guys include Baloo, an easy going bear who saves Mowgli from being killed by the large python Kaa. Then there is a monkey sequence featuring the Kong-sized ape, King Louie. 
Parents, be aware that this PG-rated Jungle Book has violent moments too intense for very young children. Just think of the violence in The Lion King intensified. This is particularly true in sequences with the tiger, snake, and great ape. That said, those same elements help make The Jungle Book so exciting and memorable for older kids and adults. 
Whereas the 1967 Jungle Book is described as a musical-comedy, Favreau has chosen to interpolate the songs from the original—but in comparatively subtle ways, creating a hybrid best described as dramatic adventure with songs and comedy added. For example, Bill Murray warbles a very toned down version of the Sherman brothers’ “Bare Necessities” while Baloo floats on his back down the river with Mowgli sitting atop his stomach. Choreography be gone. Scarlett Johansson’s snake vamps the lyrics to “Trust in Me,” and Christopher Walken’s ape sounds like a creepy monster talk-singing newly added lyrics to “I Wan’na Be Like You.” Louis Prima he is not, but that is totally OK. It works. 
By the way, the closing credit roll is worth staying to see since it features some clever animation. 
There is also a poignant tag at the very end, dedicated to the recently deceased Garry Shandling, who voiced the cute porcupine Ikki.  Shandling was a class act worthy of inclusion in this fine motion picture. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: A