The Bock’s Office: Live-action ‘Jungle Book’ has the right kind of bite
April 21, 2016
You may know the basic narrative of "The Jungle Book," but it's a testimony to moviemaking when something with decades of familiarity can make you jump out of your seat in surprise at the fur, scales, claws and fangs that seemingly come out of nowhere. It almost makes you wish they could figure out something better than a red diaper for the hero to wear.
If you go…
"Title," rated PG
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Running time: 105 minutes
Starring the voices of: Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba and Scarlett Johansson
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The only life a boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) has ever known has been within the jungles of India, looked after by the wise panther Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley) and the wolf pack that he considers his family.
However, the older the "man-cub" gets, the more danger he faces from the vicious tiger Shere Kahn (Idris Elba), whose volatile experiences with humans have led him to swear that he will end Mowgli's life and any creature who tries to protect him.
The only solution Bagheera sees for his charge is the safe haven of the village outside the jungle where he can be with his own kind.
An uncertain Mowgli is willing to trust that Bagheera knows what's best for him, but when they get separated, the human must survive on his own for the first time, encountering animals both friendly and hostile, all the while fearing that a certain tiger is out to get him.
Fresh-faced and feisty, Sethi brings loads of energy to his first feature as a version of Mowgli who's all too aware of his outsider status in the wild but not too keen on being back among people, who, based on all the stories he's heard, are the most savage animals of all. Apparently, even when you're raised by wolves, you can still be coddled, since this kid has a disturbing lack of jungle smarts, though an innate talent for engineering and invention helps combat that.
Kingsley provides a typically regal, no-nonsense take on Bagheera, as do Lupita Nyong'o as Mowgli's adoptive mother Raksha and Giancarlo Esposito as alpha male Akela, while Elba provides more than enough snarl and snark as Shere Kahn, a stripy sadist determined to settle a score from many years past that left him scarred and blind in one eye.
Speaking of villains, Scarlett Johansson makes a memorable mark as Kaa the python, a seductively sibilant snake who's not nearly the lisping dope from the original cartoon.
Phil Harris will never be replaced as the definitive personality of the sloth bear Baloo, but Bill Murray nearly makes us forget his animated likeness as the fuzzy, fun-loving slacker that finds a kindred spirit in the man-cub, as well as a way to get his paws on all the honey he can eat.
Bill, you are officially forgiven for giving us two "Garfield" flicks.
Then there's Christopher Walken doing all he can to not steal the show as the voice of the jungle's equivalent of a mob boss, King Louie, re-imagined from a typical orangutan with delusions of grandeur to a simian so massive and powerful you'd swear you were looking at King Kong's ginger cousin.
Can you say Gigantopithecus, kids? Because you certainly can't sing it with a straight face.
While the jazzy music was one of the best qualities of the original Disney cartoon — just coming up on its 50th anniversary next year — its use here is one of the live-action remake's worst points, half-hearted renditions of "I Wan'na Be Like You" and "The Bare Necessities" standing out painfully against John Debney's otherwise moody original score, though versions of both tunes — the former of which was retooled by co-writer Richard M. Sherman of the Sherman brothers — plus Johansson's crooning of Kaa's "Trust in Me" make for an acceptable soundtrack as the credits roll.
Director Jon Favreau takes a risk in making some changes, but besides mangling some of our favorite tunes, many of these alterations pay off, partly because an exact replica of the cartoon would be meaningless.
Though it seems to be borrowing from "The Lion King" at times, the story is stronger and altogether smarter than it was when Disney first took on Rudyard Kipling's characters. And, though this is hardly the first live-action rendering of Mowgli, it may be the most masterful, creating a verdant visual backdrop and animals that are largely computer-generated but look laudably realistic.
James Cameron, take note.
As long as the outcome looks as good as "The Jungle Book," Disney is more than welcome to keep raiding its own library to remake its two-dimensional favorites with newer technology. Of course, with release dates already set for "Pete's Dragon" and "Beauty and the Beast," it's not like they were awaiting permission.
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