Friday, April 15, 2016

The Jungle Book movie review.

Another year, another live-action Disney offering remaking one of their classic animated features. Ever since Alice in Wonderland's success (with a sequel releasing in just over a month), the trend of remaking their most famous animated features as live-action reimaginings has quickly become ubiquitous under the house of mouse, and one that shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

One would be justified in growing annoyed by Disney's gung-ho attitude to keep going forward with it, but at least they seem to be learning from their previous mistakes, with 2015's Cinderella actually being a marked improvement over its animated counterpart. It was a start, that's for sure, and did manage to muster up some hope for Jon Favreau's retelling of Disney's retelling of Rudyard Kipling's original Mowgli stories... and if The Jungle Book is anything to go by, if Disney is to continue this trend indefinitely, let it be to this same level of quality, as this is by far their best foray into that realm yet.

Raised in the jungle ever since he was a baby, young Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has lived under the watchful eye of his extended wolf family, and his knowledgeable godfather Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley). But this is not to last, as the vengeful tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) has vowed to kill the boy and those who protect him, leading Mowgli to decide to leave his pack, and hide out elsewhere in the jungle. It's on this journey that draws Mowgli to new and dangerous parts of the jungle, including into the coils of the hypnotic Kaa (Scarlet Johansson), a mischievous kingdom of monkeys led by their fire-obsessed king (Christopher Walken), and into the more care-free protection of the aloof bear Baloo (Bill Murray).

Taking influence both from its older counterpart, as well as reinserting some of Kipling's darker undertones and violence, The Jungle Book is a clear labor of love for Favreau. Much like Cinderella from last year, albeit to better results this time around, Favreau successfully manages to capture the original spirit of the film that inspired it, while also realizing that such a story needed an update and expansion on some of its underdeveloped qualities. This is especially apparent in how it reflects Mowgli's personal coming of age, and his grappling with the advice of his paternal mentors.

Mowgli in this movie is shown to be a very resourceful inventor and quick-witted improviser to aid him in his jungle life. Whereas the more traditional Bagheera and wolf pack leader Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) look at these habits with critical eyes, considering it to be out of character for those within the jungle, Baloo is much more accepting of those quirks of his, embracing and supporting Mowgli for his uniqueness, and the film is also wise to encourage that same level of creativity. It becomes a subtle, but effective teaching and celebration on the power of using perceived imperfections to one's advantage, seeing those quirks and differences as encouraging enhancements to someone's personality rather than an alienating detriment.

And as said before, the tone of the film is certainly quite darker than its predecessor. While heeding true to several important plot points from the animated rendition, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks are given free reign to tinker around with the original source, making wise rearrangements and exclusions of key scenes and characters, particularly in regards to integrating some genuinely intense moments. The film is built with an expertly established undercurrent of very real threat and violence, with the many dangers of the jungle, whether they happen with or without Mowgli's involvement, always feeling very high stakes, and it's to the credit of how strong the characters are that we want to see them make it out okay. In an age where PG ratings are carelessly handed out like candy, it is quite refreshing when a movie actually feels like it's earned that higher rating, balancing effortlessly on that line between what children can and can't handle.

But as dark as the film is, it still never forgets to have fun along the way, and the film is very fun. It's remarkable just how fast a sit that the movie feels, flowing from sequence to sequence near-seamlessly, and equipped with Disney's always endearing sense of humor. It's also a joyful nostalgia trip taking die-hard Disney fans like myself back to the days of their childhood when they first watched this film. Favreau is very wise and meticulous in how he uses these callbacks, making his adoration and debt to the original film clearly known by composer John Debney's re-orchestration of George Bruns' original score at the very beginning, as well as in some subtle recreations of shots from the older film.

And up next are the visual effects. Plain and simple, this is some of the greatest CGI I have ever seen in any movie. Shot almost entirely within a soundstage in LA, it's almost unbelievable how photo-realistic the entire picture looks. I think the best possible compliment I could ever give a movie that relies so heavily on CGI is to call its effects work invisible, and that's certainly the case here. As someone who was actively looking for seams in the artwork to rear their heads, it's to the film's immeasurable benefit that after the initial effect has taken its hold, you stop being wowed by them and simply buy into the illusion that the film sets up before your eyes.

And another huge credit to this is in the character animation, perfectly blending both realism and fantasy, and aided by a similarly invisible voice cast. As far as I'm concerned, Bill Murray is the living embodiment of a Baloo type, possessing all of his natural aloofness, warmth, and irresistible zeal, and wears all of those qualities proudly like a badge. Ben Kingsley is also an excellent fit for Bagheera, effortlessly tapping into the character's concerned, wise, and pressing personality habits, as well as his funny sarcastic quips, which come out in especially joyful effect in his annoyance at Baloo's antics. Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita N'yongo are both tender and selfless as Mowgli's parental figures, Christopher Walken as an ape that manages to be both funny and scary while singing jazz is the greatest gift I never knew I wanted, but the only disappointment in the cast comes from Scarlett Johansson's Kaa, which I can't tell is due either to miscasting or not being given anything to do beyond her one heavily advertised scene.

However, she's more than made up for by Idris Elba, who seems to have become Disney's MVP this year, with other prominent voice roles in Zootopia and Finding Dory. One big advantage that the film has is the decision to give Shere Khan more direct involvement in the story. Stepping up from the original movie's more reserved Maleficent-in-tiger-skin characterization, the Shere Khan in this movie is a positively menacing presence, a vicious and conniving predator that roams the jungle like a fearsome tyrant. Elba's voiceover is particularly necessary in supplying Khan's eloquence and careful thinking, portraying him as an embodiment of pure evil. This is to say nothing of the character's several close-ups, as staring into his terrifying eyes is like looking into the eyes of death. Live-action or animated, this is one of the greatest Disney villains ever put to film.

But all of this visual dazzle is nothing if it doesn't have a good surrogate to connect to. One common vice of films shot predominantly with blue screen/green screen, and one that makes me often prefer more practical on-set methods, is how the actors are clearly struggling to interact with things that aren't really there (ie. the Star Wars prequels). It's tough enough for any seasoned veteran to be able to do so much heavy-lifting, and even tougher when that heavy-lifting has to be carried by a child actor. By some miracle, that's exactly what newcomer Neel Sethi does, slipping into Mowgli's character with pure ease and enthusiasm, and carries the entire movie without overplaying or underplaying any of his interactions with the animated characters. Not once do we ever feel like these two things don't belong with each other.

I'll freely admit that I'm a little annoyed by Disney's recent remake-frenzy as well, but in spite of all those feelings, I genuinely loved The Jungle Book from start to finish. It's an excellent blend between paying homage to a film that Favreau clearly holds close to his heart, while also opting to tell his own version of the story and not form a carbon copy. The differences between the two are expertly judged and selected, with the darker undertones of the novel integrated naturally with the lighter elements, and the characters are utterly endearing. It's a thoroughly entertaining movie that never overstays its welcome, and as far as I'm concerned, AMPAS may as well reserve the effects team a nomination slot right now.

While this trend may wear its welcome out very soon, as long as Disney's efforts are this good, I'll happily keep turning up for them.

****1/2 / *****

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