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The Jungle Book (2016) Review

jungle-book-baloo
RATING:
(3 STARS)

The Jungle Book, as surprising as it probably seems, is one of the few Disney animated classics that eluded me in my childhood. A casual awareness of something called “The Bear Necessities” was all I knew about the 1967 version of Rudyard Kipling’s stories. Incidentally, Kipling’s books are foreign to me, as is Zoltan Korda’s 1942 film, so this entire world and its lively characters were all introduced to me with director Jon Favreau’s interpretation.

And it’s interesting to see Favreau in the director’s chair here. Disney has been in the live-action fairy tale business for some time — 1996’s 101 Dalmations is the apparent starting point — but they’ve only been in the serial movie-making business for a few years since Samuel L. Jackson walked onto the screen as Nick Fury in 2008’s Iron Man. That film’s director? Jon Favreau. Huh.

I’m not saying we’re bound for an Avengers-like mega-film with Mowgli, Belle, Aladdin, and others teaming up to fight evil forces, but Favreau does seem like the perfect director to create a template for future filmmakers to follow. After all, he’s done it before.

That’s my big takeaway from The Jungle Book: It’s crowd-pleasing and inoffensive like a Marvel movie. That sounds like faint praise, but it shouldn’t be because the film achieves exactly what it sets out to. It’s a fun diversion. It looks great. And it’ll get the public excited about Disney’s next live-action take on an animated classic — and whatever that film is will probably achieve the exact same mildly positive result.

This film starts with a brief introduction by the panther Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley) of the world and its major players. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a man cub living with a pack of wolves. Found by Bagheera as an infant, he entrusts the pack and its alpha female Raksha (voice of Lupita Nyong’o) with Mowgli’s safety and upbringing. A few years into this experiment, and all appears well.

It’s the dry season, which means the animals of the jungle enter into what’s called a water truce. Because drinking is more important than eating, and water is so hard to come by, there is no hunting until the river rises. Everything from the smallest mouse to the largest hippopotamus gathers around the water hole for a peaceful sip, but the tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba) always has other ideas. He senses a man cub in their midst, and when Mowgli makes his presence known, Shere Khan makes it known that there won’t be peace for long as long as the boy remains in the jungle. Shere Khan lost an eye to man’s “red flower” (fire), and he’s hungry for revenge.

Bagheera agrees to accompany Mowgli out of the jungle and into the village of man for the safety of all, but when the two are separated, the little boy ends up in the company of a gluttonous bear named Baloo (voice of Bill Murray), who wants to use Mowgli’s man tricks to get as much honey as he can. It’s a good life, but how long can they maintain it with Shere Khan’s blood lust getting stronger by the day.

All but one of the film’s characters are animals, which means The Jungle Book needs to look exceptional to overcome some potential hiccups or distractions. I’d put the film’s visual effects on par with something like Dawn of Planet of the Apes, which turns its apes into entirely fully realized individuals with personalities and perfectly believable looks and movements. King Louie, a gigantopithecus (or enormous ape) voiced by Christopher Walken, is probably the highlight here. He looks INCREDIBLE, and Walken is a riot trying to pull of a credible Marlon Brando impression. He sort of succeeds, but his inability to disappear behind the fur and bravado is part of the fun.

And so it is with Murray, Kingsley, and others. Very few of the film’s voice actors recede into the background, but Murray so very much is Baloo that it works perfectly. Idris Elba can be as menacing as Shere Khan, and of course, Kingsley is one of the most regal actors in the jungle that is Hollywood. Only Scarlett Johannson feels at all out of place. She plays the frighteningly seductive snake called Kaa, but the way the character is written doesn’t do her any favors.

I’ve gone most of the length of the review without mentioning the performance of young Neel Sethi as Mowgli, and that’s for good reason. He’s not especially good, but he’s also not distracting enough to bring the film down. Also odd, but not disastrously so, are the film’s musical numbers & two to be exact — which are obviously just there to keep the animated film’s fans happy.

And happy they should be. In fact, it’s hard not to see anyone walking away from this film unhappy. It screams competency, and while it’s not something I’ll be thinking about much come the end of the year, I’m happy I saw it and happier to recommend it to just about everyone.

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