Friday, April 15, 2016

The Jungle Book: Family-friendly adventure

The Jungle Book (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.15.16

The CGI tiger in 2012’s big-screen adaptation of Life of Pi was quite impressive.

This one is better.

Although Mowgli (Neel Sethi) often is puzzled by the rule-laden lectures he constantly
receives from Bagheera, the boy is about to discover precisely why some of these
lessons are so important.
Indeed, the myriad faux animals in Disney’s fresh take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book are rendered with jaw-dropping authenticity. Many viewers likely will spend much of the first act trying to decide which (if any) of the critters are real — either in close-up or distant group shots — and which are genius computer animation.

I was convinced that a darling little tree frog was real, as it hopped out of some water, until it brushed itself in an adorable — but decidedly unfroglike — manner. At which point, I simply abandoned the exercise and settled comfortably into an exhilarating experience that Kipling himself never could have imagined.

Justin Marks’ screenplay owes more to Disney’s animated 1967 adaptation than Kipling’s nine short stories about the “man cub” Mowgli, and his adventures with the various creatures — benign and dangerous — that make their home in the Indian jungle. Fans of the earlier animated film will be pleased to see Marks hit all the narrative and character high points, most notably those concerning the fatherly panther Bagheera, the free-spirited bear Baloo, and the utterly malevolent tiger Shere Khan.

Mowgli is played to impressionable, young-kid perfection by 12-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi, introduced during a bravura chase through the jungle, which is choreographed for maximum breathtaking excitement by director Jon Favreau and editor Mark Livolsi. It’s an impressive prologue: a pell-mell blend of running, jumping and tumbling through jungle undergrowth, up and down trees, and across small canyons.

I can’t imagine how Sethi and Favreau did it, and — of course — that’s the magic of movies. (For starters, the kid must have the world’s toughest feet.)

Back-story eventually reveals that a toddler-age Mowgli was found by Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), who brought the child to Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), one of many wolves belonging to a pack led by alpha male Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). Although subsequently raised in the way of the wolves — most particularly the chanted law, “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack” — Mowgli cannot help the blossoming human ingenuity that enables him to “do tricks” (Bagheera’s term) that simplify certain tasks.

Such “tricks,” alas, are met with suspicion by the jungle’s many other creatures.

Conflict arises with the unwelcome arrival of Shere Khan (Idris Elba, wonderfully malicious), who warns that man-cubs inevitably grow up to become men, who in turn are a danger to jungle creatures. Shere Khan’s “solution” is simple: He’ll simply have Mowgli for lunch. (The tiger also has a personal reason for his interest in the boy, the details of which emerge later.)

Raksha isn’t having any of that, but Akela recognizes Mowgli’s increasing outsider status. The boy, sensing that his presence has become a divisive distraction, volunteers to leave; Bagheera agrees to take him to the safety of a nearby man-village.

In the bright light of the subsequent morning, though, Mowgli can’t see the sense of that solution; he knows nothing of human ways, and feels at home in the jungle. Further debate is cut off by the unexpected arrival of Shere Khan, resulting in a skirmish that separates Mowgli from the others.

Now on his own, Mowgli wanders, lost, in a portion of the jungle with which he’s entirely unfamiliar.

Fortunately, a new friend is right around the next tree: Baloo, voiced to hilarious, con-artist perfection by Bill Murray. Murray easily steals the show ... that is, when we’re not still being amazed by all the lifelike animals. Baloo’s wheedling petulance initially makes Mowgli something of a dogs body, but the relationship dynamic balances quickly, and the two become fast friends.

But the original problem remains: Shere Khan still is out there, and still determined to kill the boy.

Subsequent escapades involve a herd of the jungle’s magnificent, quasi-mythical elephants — the true kings and queens of all beasts — and a seductively dangerous python dubbed Kaa (voiced with come-hither wickedness by Scarlett Johansson).

The most elaborate encounter is an audience with King Louie, the massive simian ruler of the lost city of Bandar-log, now home to a huge colony of wild and wily monkeys. King Louie was voiced with jazzy, mostly harmless impudence by Louis Prima in the animated film; Favreau and Marks take an entirely different approach here, with Christopher Walken turning this “gigantopithecus” into yet another figure of true evil.

Walken’s take on King Louie makes him flat-out scary ... that is, until he starts to sing.

Herein lies this film’s only serious disconnect. Favreau and the talented CGI supervisors — Rob Legato, Adam Valdez, Dan Lemmon, Joyce Cox and Andy Jones, take a bow — work very, very hard to deliver an extraordinary level of verisimilitude, which is utterly blown by somebody’s decision to resurrect two songs from the 1967 film, one of which is “I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song).”

Walken’s more-or-less spoken performance of this tune may be disturbingly amusing and ironic, but it also rips us right out of the story ... as does Mowgli and Baloo’s earlier performance of the iconic, Oscar-nominated “Bare Necessities.” Granted, the latter is a marvelous song, which deserves its half-century survival ... but it simply doesn’t fit here.

The core narrative aside, we’re also captivated by all sorts of sidebar characters: tiny rodents with huge ears, the many monkeys and apes in King Louie’s realm, the aforementioned frog, and a rather fussy porcupine named Ikki (the late Garry Shandling’s final big-screen credit), whose possessive tic — “Mine ... mine” — seems a rather obvious steal from the seagulls in Finding Nemo.

Most of these supporting players serve as comic relief, but a few have their dramatic moments: most notably young Gray (Brighton Rose), Mowgli’s smallest “wolf brother,” who chafes at being the runt of the litter.

Kingsley voices Bagheera with a solemnity that matches the panther’s regal bearing; Nyong’o imbues Raksha with intelligence, courage and maternal ferocity.

The marvelous animal characterizations aside, the film succeeds because of young Sethi’s plucky performance as the resourceful Mowgli. Nothing knocks this kid down; he has the heart of a lion — lions being absent from this story — and a level of foolhardy bravery that both impresses and worries Bagheera.

Most crucially, Sethi makes Mowgli’s resolve, quick wit and athletic grace look authentic. We really couldn’t expect — or need — a better rendering of Kipling’s honorable feral child.

All concerned have done a great job here. Favreau’s film should enjoy plenty of box-office action for awhile, after which it’s guaranteed to become a must-own home video hit.

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