Friday, April 22, 2016

The Jungle Book Review

So, it seems that live-action remakes of classic Disney animated features are going to be a trend now. I still say that Maleficent was not that impressive, while Cinderella exceeded my expectations. I'd heard about a live-action Beauty and the Beast remake, but a live-action version of The Jungle Book (2016) slipped under my "coming soon" movies radar. The original animated Jungle Book isn't one of Disney's greatest films, though I enjoyed it as a kid. This newer version has more story to it and is more thematically cogent.
Raised by a family of wolves since birth, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must leave the only home he's ever known when the fearsome tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) unleashes his mighty roar. Guided by a no-nonsense panther (Ben Kingsley) and a free-spirited bear (Bill Murray), the young boy meets an array of jungle animals who don't have his best interests at heart, including a slithery python (Scarlett Johansson) and a smooth-talking ape (Christopher Walken).
The Jungle Book is a collection of short stories written in 1894 by Rudyard Kipling. And according to Disney tradition, their original 1967 animated musical was a significantly watered down and sugar-coated version that had little to do with the book upon which it was based. There was a 1994 live-action version of The Jungle Book which featured no talking animals. This third version of The Jungle Book strikes a balance between Disney's two previous versions by retaining the buoyant spirit of the 1967 films (as well as some of its memorable songs) while crafting a movie with more realism and peril. I think this balance worked out very well.
In the animated Jungle Book, there wasn't much theme or story surrounding it. Disney was content to have some cute characters sing some musical numbers and have a villain generate some kind of tension regardless of how vague his motives might be. Thematically, I interpreted the animated movie to be about growing up. Mowgli is being encouraged to leave the fun filled jungle and go to the man village and take on responsibilities, Mowgli resists this, trying on new animal personas, up until he discovers a human young lady and then has no trouble at all moving from childhood. In this version of The Jungle Book, it's more about nature and man's place in it. Back in Kipling's day, nature was something to be overcome and tamed, where as now nature is something to be protected. Mowgli loves and respects nature, but as a human he is prone to making and using tools. This is mankind's adaptive skill, as opposed to tooth and claw that the rest of the animal kingdom has. It is established, that while Mowgli's tools have very practical use, they are not in alignment with the natural world, and it would be in his best interest to leave the jungle to be with his own kind where such tools are more inherent. A sense of urgency is produced by Shere Kahn who distrusts man and his tools because he was burned by fire or "Man's red flower" which disfigured him. Fire itself is developed as a powerful tool that humans use. Fire was similar to The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, in that controlling it was  going to give someone ultimate power, but corrupt them as well as create destruction. Thematically, everything fit together beautifully. The story and theme were woven together in this new interpretation without detracting from the fun quality of the original animated film.
Initially, I was surprised that more of the movie was not shot in actual jungle locations, given the prominent theme of preserving the natural order of things. This was a CGI intensive movie that used a lot of green screen to create a surreal, dreamlike world. The Jungle Book made glorious use of photo-realistic rendering, computer-generated imagery, and motion capture technologies in such a way that frankly rivaled the innovations of Avatar and Life of Pi. Among the most impressive uses was the motion capture, and none was more impressive than that done for the character of King Louie. This antagonist shows up later in the movie, and is essentially the catalyst which gives Mowgli the idea of how he can defeat Shere Kahn. When we see King Louie, I thought he looked familiar. It took me a few minutes before I realized that this Gigantopithecus, looked, sounded, and acted a whole lot like Christopher Walken. The mannerisms were so spot on of the actor, even Louie's eyes looked like Walken's. The visuals and camera work are nothing short of amazing.
Admittedly, I wasn't real keen on a remake of The Jungle Book, since I didn't find the original all that great. But this version was fantastic! It's as lovely to behold as it is engrossing to watch, and is only bolstered by a stellar vocal cast. The Jungle Book actually makes significant improvements upon its predecessors while setting remarkable new standards for CGI. This wasn't a musical, though it had Baloo singing a bit of the song "Bear Necessities" and King Louie singing a shorter and slightly altered version of "I Wan'na Be Like You" to give it a different context for this version of the movie. Though not part of the actual movie, Scarlet Johansson sings Kaa's "Trust in Me" song over the end credits. This is a good movie and worth the money to see in theaters; it would be a great film to see as a family. I'd also consider getting a copy on home video when it's available.

Disney is cranking out live-action versions of their animated classics. I'm still looking forward to Beauty and the Beast, even more so after seeing this the fantastic transition made on Cinderella and now The Jungle Book. What is an animated Disney movie that you'd like to see made into a live-action film? Comment below.

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